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‘The Violin Conspiracy’ Review: A New Kind of Mystery

4 Stars

Cover of Brendan Slocumb's "The Violin Conspiracy"
Cover of Brendan Slocumb's "The Violin Conspiracy" By Courtesy of Penguin Random House
By Jennifer Y. Gao, Contributing Writer

Brendan Slocumb’s debut novel “The Violin Conspiracy” begins near the story’s end: Rayquan “Ray” McMillan, a classical violin soloist, has just had his Stradivarius violin — an instrument valued at over 10 million dollars — stolen less than a month away from the most important competition of his life. Throughout the rest of the novel, Ray reflects on his career and the events leading up to the robbery, allowing readers to uncover the mystery of his past while he sorts out the issue at present.

The plot covers a great deal of temporal ground — readers follow Ray from his first violin gig in high school through college and into his professional career. Luckily, the beginning of the story sets up the necessary context for his career and relationships, making these transitions seamless and easy to follow. From the start, readers know which of Ray’s relationships are strained, and which are positive ones with people he looks up to and admires.

The narrative’s clear structure comes from Ray’s reasoning as he attempts to solve the violin mystery. He jumps from one incident to the next without confusion and navigates different settings to yield a captivating yet manageable pace. The inverted time structure also does much to keep the reader curious and engaged; the start of the story introduces many questions that the rest of the novel sets out to answer.

However, the novel’s timeline occasionally produces an emotional disconnect between the reader and the characters. For instance, when Ray’s violin is stolen at the beginning of the novel, he is incredibly distraught and reluctant to play another violin in the meantime. With a big competition in the near future, which is emphasized as extremely important to Ray’s success, his emotional reactions are hard to justify without understanding the family history of his violin, which is not revealed until much later in the story.

Additionally, at times the characters’ reactions do not seem appropriate for the situation at hand and instead only serve the purpose of creating suspense or adding drama. This is often the case for Ray’s family, especially before anyone knows about the value of Ray’s violin. For instance, when Ray’s Grandma Nora gifts Ray the old family violin, most of the family vehemently protests despite believing it to be worthless and not caring about the violin’s existence before she made the decision to give it away. Similarly, Dr. Janice Stevens, Ray’s mentor, has a dramatic reaction over the phone with Ray when she first suspects the true value of Ray’s violin. This moment creates high suspense which is further built by the following flashback, but when she meets with Ray in person, her tone is entirely different and the growing suspense falls flat.

Beyond the mystery of the violin theft, “The Violin Conspiracy” highlights two main struggles in Ray’s life: the difficulty of being a Black soloist in a white-dominated field, and the strain his money and success has placed on his relationships, particularly with his family. Slocumb’s skillful exploration of these complex issues through the lens of Ray’s career effectively creates a nuanced and cohesive plot.

The novel highlights each of these issues by weaving them throughout Ray’s life. The story jumps through settings, from his childhood home in Charlotte to concert halls across America. In each, Slocumb goes in depth into select moments which showcase the different facets of prejudice faced by Ray on his journey to become a professional musician.

Ray faces discrimination from not only his superiors but also his colleages, law enforcement, and total strangers. The reader sees this discrimination come up repeatedly in different forms, from people making assumptions about the kinds of music he plays to people doubting his merits and abilities. These moments come both when Ray is excelling and when he is just living life as a normal person. Slocumb's inclusion of small everyday moments that are punctuated by racism towards Ray brilliantly captures Ray’s reality and allows the reader to understand the depth of Ray’s challenges by experiencing it through his first-person perspective.

However, not all of Slocumb’s descriptions are so skillful; some feel a bit bland. His music metaphors sometimes feel cheesy and forced, and he occasionally breaks into overly flowery language, which is out of place in the rest of the work. Some sections are too descriptive and over explained: After showing, there are times the text proceeds to unnecessarily tell, to explicate in a repetitive way. For instance, the story gives many examples of Ray’s Aunt Rochelle looking out for Ray and helping him when no other family member would. Aunt Rochelle is clearly contrasted with other family members who are only nice to Ray when they need something from him. After illustrating this contrast with repeated examples throughout, near the end, the text unnecessarily spells out this contrast for the reader.

Nevertheless, Slocumb does a great job at giving a deep look into the world of classical music and telling a story of challenges that resonate with a large audience. Coming from a background of classical music and music education, Slocumb is clearly knowledgeable about the specific worlds present in the story, and he does a great job of painting it for everyone else.

Overall, the novel tells a very compelling and valuable story of a Black musician from his childhood to his professional career. It confronts privilege, racial discrimination, complex family relationships, the strain of success, and the stuggle of upholding a family legacy, all in a unique way. With a well-thought-out plot infused with both mystery and complex relationships, “The Violin Conspiracy'' is a thrilling tale not to be missed.

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