Polemic rarely works in fiction, and that’s for a very good reason: Fiction begets empathy, and polemic encourages attack.
But in his debut thriller The Violin Conspiracy, Brendan Slocumb employs polemic about racism to great effect as he reminds us that the high-toned world of classical music suffers from, and because, of racism.
Slocumb knows that world inside and out. A violinist, performer and lifelong music teacher, in his online biography he says that becoming a musician saved his life: “Friends [I] grew up with are today sitting in jail; when they were out running the streets, [I] was in rehearsals.” The author’s protagonist Rayquan (Ray) McMillian has had a similar trajectory. Young Ray’s mother never encouraged his delight in the violin, but his grandmother loved to hear him play, and insisted he take his grandfather’s fiddle.
Although caked with years of rosin and missing a chin piece and a bridge, Ray sees the violin’s worth and cobbles together money for its repair. Eventually, after he’s been awarded a full scholarship to college, a professional luthier recognizes the fiddle as a genuine Stradivarius, worth millions of dollars. Soon Ray’s family and another (white) family will try to claim his beloved violin, with stakes increasing as he prepares for the most important event of his young career — competing in Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Competition.
Ray decides to hole up in a Manhattan hotel with his delightful girlfriend, violist Nicole. One evening as they’re about to leave for dinner, Ray opens his case to check on his violin and finds it gone, a white Converse sneaker with a ransom note in its place. In the course of Ray’s struggle to raise the $5 million in Bitcoin the thieves demand, we learn about his personal struggles. He continues his education in the face of his mother’s insistence that he get a job and help out with household finances, faces the disdain of many teachers and fellow students as a young Black man performing classical music, and learns big truths about how much money is needed to pursue this kind of creative calling.
What’s most interesting about Slocumb’s novel isn’t the mystery of how and why the violin disappears, although the red herrings and dead ends are interesting enough, especially when it comes to the Marks family, who insisted that the Strad belongs to them because their forebear gave it to Ray’s great-great-great-grandfather — whom they enslaved. It’s easy to imagine a similar tug-of-war in present-day America, where so many still seem to believe that because enslaved people had no rights, their progeny shouldn’t either.
But while Ray pursues his missing violin, he also has to pursue his passion, which is playing the violin — and that equals performing but also practicing. Slocumb imbues his character’s life with so much authenticity in the details, details that anyone who has played a stringed instrument, or played in a professional ensemble, will recognize. You get moments of glory on stages, but you also have to spend hours practicing scales and phrases. You have to travel a great deal, making sure you always have proper security and insurance for your instrument, sometimes more than one. Rehearsals and sound checks and dealing with accompanists take up more time than you’d like.
And you do it anyway. Where Slocumb shines, even when his writing becomes a little stiff, is in the passages where he shows Ray’s grit. “So here’s what you do if you’re a Black guy trying to make it work in an unfamiliar world:,” Ray tells us. “You just put your head down and do the work. You do twice as much work as the white guy sitting next to you, and you do it twice as often, and you get half as far. But you do it.”
Shortly after I finished reading a galley of The Violin ConspiracyI saw a Daily Telegraph obituary for 85-year-old Black violinist named Edmund Reid who died on Jan. 17. Born in Jamaica and the recipient of a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music, the acclaimed Reid “was often the only black musician to be found among the rank-and-file members of British orchestras.” I am sure Brendan Slocumb knew Reid’s name, and of his talent, long before I did (shame on me). Slocumb’s debut on the page will, I hope, not be his last appearance there, because he has plenty of brio to share with readers as well as listeners.
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.