The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb, New York : Anchor Books, 2022.
The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb is an excellent mystery about an African American concert violin soloist whose priceless Stradivarius violin is stolen.
Ray McMillan has had an unusual path toward becoming the famous violinist he is. He came from a poor family in North Carolina. He didn’t have formal lessons until he was in college, and didn’t own his own violin until his senior year of high school. And he is black, when just 1.8 percent of musicians playing in classical symphonies are black.
But Ray loves music, and loves playing the violin. His grandmother is his greatest supporter, and remembers her grandfather playing the violin when she was growing up. In fact, she still has his old violin in her attic, and tells Ray he can have it.
Ray spends whole weekends searching the attic, while his family tells him to drop it, that his grandmother is crazy, that the old violin probably got thrown away years ago. But at Christmas, he finds an old violin wrapped under the Christmas tree – his grandmother secretly found it for him.
Ray auditions for the regional orchestra, and gets selected. But at school, at gigs, and at the regional orchestra performance, he experiences racism. No one expects the black boy to be able to play, and when they hear he can, they still don’t offer him the same opportunities. One woman sees his potential and offers him a full scholarship to college. She, too, is black, and is always looking for other minority students to encourage to play classical music.
Four years later, Ray is graduating from college, and trying to line up soloist spots and workshops, but he needs a better violin to do so. While he is looking at new violins, he still feels a strong connection to his old violin. He asks the music store owner to try to clean up his great-great-grandfather’s violin first, and when the owner does so, he discovers that it is a Stradivarius.
Unfortunately, this causes division in his family, who want to sell the violin and split the money. They call him greedy and say that his grandmother would have wanted him to sell it and share the money with the family. But he knows that isn’t true. Ray’s grandmother had told him the story of her grandfather, who had been a slave. When he was freed, his master gave him the violin because he played it so well and no one else in his family played (and perhaps also he was the son of the master). But now the former master’s descendants (the Marks) also want to claim the violin as theirs and state that the violin was stolen/lost, not given as a gift.
The story jumps back and forth in time, as the book begins right after the violin has been stolen, then goes back to when Ray was in high school and was given the violin. In the present, Ray is a month away from competing in the most prestigious music competition in the world, the Tchaikovsky Competition, in Moscow. Did someone steal the violin to hurt his chances? Was it his family, or the Marks family, looking to sell the priceless violin or own it for the prestige?
One part of the novel that really struck me was how Ray’s family reacted to his musical aspirations. Ray’s mom wouldn’t let him play in the house because she described it as “screeching.” She wanted him to drop out of high school, get his GED, and start working so he could contribute to the family’s finances. She wanted the immediate return of money that a job could offer, instead of the promise of (possibly) more money later after a college education. I am sure there are many students today who face similar struggles, either because their families want them to quit and start making money, or they themselves feel they ought to be contributing to the family’s finances rather than “wasting” time and money on school, especially if their love is music or art or something where you’re not guaranteed to make a good salary. Ray’s gamble paid off, but it took someone else believing in him, mentoring him and offering him a full scholarship to get him to college and beyond, to auditions for major orchestras.
The ending of The Violin Conspiracy was satisfying (and a little shocking). I also really enjoyed the author’s note at the end, which talked about his experiences as a black classical musician. While this story is certainly fiction, Slocumb has included a lot of things based on his life and the racism he faced. The North Carolina connection (the author is from North Carolina and the book is partially set here as well) made me connect even more to this story.
I called The Violin Conspiracy a mystery, and it is, but it is much more than a simple mystery about a stolen violin, and the search to get it back. It is a story about racism, the education system, and family dynamics that will resonate with a lot of people who have succeeded despite society’s expectations of them because of their color, socioeconomic status, or another supposedly limiting factor.
Mary Beth Adams is the Community Engagement Librarian for Alamance County Public Libraries. She can be reached at email@example.com.