Showing posts with label Brendan Slocumb. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Brendan Slocumb. Show all posts

20 March 2023

A Bold Move

Many years ago, my then (and excellent) agent had a complaint with my latest manuscript: There's only one murder! she said, even though craze for serial killers was still in publishing's future. I dutifully killed off an elderly birdwatcher who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but my heart was not in it.

Brendan Slocumb novel, The Violin Conspiracy

So I was interested in Brendan Slocumb's strategy for his debut novel, The Violin Conspiracy. It not only lacks multiple murders, it lacks a death of any kind, as well as rape, grievous bodily assault, stalking, and blackmail. Ah, you think, a cozy. Well, no. There are no detecting cats, no recipes for chocolate cake, no would be Miss Marples. 

What we have in the initial pages is not bloodshed, but a theft, one almost wants to say a kidnapping, of a young violinist's prized violin. Sherlock Holmes would have approved, our founding father being as keen on finding precious objects as preserving fancy reputations, but is it enough for our bloodthirsty publishing business?

This where Slocumb has been ingenious, in both structure and characterizations. His hero, Ray McMillan is unusual in several ways, all of which play nicely into the plot. He is a Black classical violinist. And as succeeding chapters reveal, he began as a poorly trained but very talented and determined musician. There were no pushy parents or private lessons for Ray, whose unsympathetic and avaricious family had no use for music with one exception: his Grandmother Nora, who gifts him with her grandfather's fiddle.

Ray has a difficult road to follow, securing a quality instrument is difficult, strings and even rosin are expensive, and racist bias, often of in a really frightening form, present roadblocks to things as simple as playing a wedding gig, getting to a concert, or getting basic repairs on an instrument. With these obstacles, there is already a considerable layer of drama in The Violin Conspiracy.

But Slocumb has two other strands to work with. One is the violin, dusty, rosin encrusted, much in need of repairs but with a surprisingly decent sound. It is a 100 year old heirloom with an dramatic backstory of its own, and moreover, it is taken and held for ransom, just as Ray is preparing for his chance to break into the big time: the Tchaikovsky Competition.

The Tchaikovsky is a super high stakes affair, and Slocumb obviously knows a lot about the stresses and strategies of big time classical competitions. Even more important for this reader, he shows a genuine love of the violin and of its repertoire. He manages to bring performances to life and although the story of the underdog taking on the world is an old one, in the right hands it still provides plenty of drama.

I couldn't say the characters are subtle or particularly complex. The good are very good and the bad are thoroughly horrid. But Ray is appealing and his love of music is genuine. Faced with a high stakes competition, obstacles from racists, a greedy family, legal threats to his violin before outright theft and a ransom demand, he has his work cut out for him. It turns out there is plenty going on without bloodshed.

The Violin Conspiracy comes at an interesting time when, as a matter of fact, there is considerable interest in the works of Black American classical composers like Florence Price and William Grant Still (both of whom the mystery references), and new operas by Black American Composers like Terence Blanchard (Fire Shut up in My Bones at the Met) and Anthony Davis (The Life and Times of Malcolm X at Detroit Opera).  There are also some fine young Black string and piano players, including the highly praised brother-sister duo, Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Masons (cello and piano). 

A good introduction to several fine Black classical pianists in available on the web at PBS's Now Hear This "Florence Price and the American Migration", glimpses of her life, selections of her work and of the blues and jazz that informed it as well as her classical training.

The Falling Men, a novel with strong mystery elements, has been issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle:

Also on kindle: The Complete Madame Selina Stories

The Man Who Met the Elf Queen with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations, is available from Apple Books at:

The Dictator's Double, 3 short mysteries and 4 illustrations is available at: