I originally chose this book because I was in the mood for a mystery. I recently read so many books that weighed me down, I thought this might be an escape read. The mystery premise of The Violin Conspiracy pulled me right in. The hunt for a stolen, irreplaceable musical instrument. Right up my alley. I remembered the history of a violin and it’s provenance interested me in the movie, THE RED VIOLIN. I thought this would be a mystery about music, ambition, and loss with the added measure of excitement—a stolen treasure, a ransom, an investigation.
While there is a mystery pushing the plot along, this book is no escape read. The burdens of history is in your face front and center. The reader gets a bellyful of racism—past and present. At its heart, this is the story of race, our dark history of slavery and ownership, family dynamics, and a black boy in the rural south who is isolated and discouraged in the pursuit of his talent and dreams.
As the book opens, Ray McMillan is already a famously successful concert violinist. He is a black man immersed in the white world of classical music who is on his way to the famed Tchaikovsky Competition, the Olympics of classical music. He has a shot at winning that hasn’t been accomplished by an American since Van Cliburn in 1958.
Ray plays an extraordinary Stradivarius violin that makes his already virtuoso performances even more sublime. He is readying himself for the competition with an excruciating practice schedule. The violin never leaves his side. He wears it on his back when he is not playing and sleeps with it next to him. But one morning, while taking a shower in a New York hotel, his girlfriend lets in room service. The violin is suddenly, mysteriously gone. It has been replaced with a ransom note for five million dollars. Thus, we’re launched into an investigation while learning Ray’s backstory.
Ray grew up in rural North Carolina. His life is mapped out for him. His mother’s desire for him is not to finish high school, let alone pursue his love of music but to get out of school early with a GED so he can get a job at Popeye’s to add to the family income. He uses a borrowed violin, unsuitable for his level of talent, and mutes it to practice in the house because his mother can’t stand the racket.
He is very talented and dedicated and his violin becomes a life raft. He and his school mates are able to get gigs at weddings and the like but it is a nightmare for Ray. In one heartbreaking scene, he is not allowed into the venue by the bride’s father and when finally does get in, he plays but isn’t allowed to eat with the other musicians. it is a cruel and venomous scene. The first taste we get of the in your face racism he experiences.
While his mother and other members of his family show Ray no love or support, his grandmother is another story. It is her love that encourages him and she gives him the old, beat up fiddle that his great- grandfather used to play for his Master when enslaved. Ray loves and cares for that violin. Years later, when he is under the tutelage of a remarkable teacher and mentor from his Conservatory, they discover that this old violin encrusted in layers of powder and neglect, is a priceless Stradivarius to be insured for ten million dollars..
The conflict heats up because this became a big news story. The original plantation owners get wind of it and want the violin back. Ray’s family, except for one supportive aunt, decide that splitting the proceeds of sale for such an instrument would put them on easy street. Both families sue him for the instrument.
As he is bearing under the strain of the lawsuits and the impending competition, we learn a lot about this music world. The author, himself a musician, was stymied throughout his own career as a violinist. In his author’s note, he posits that musicians of color are severely underrepresented and unwelcome in this world. Many of the staggering events in the novel came straight from his life. He had to work twice as hard, always having to prove himself, and was subject to both overt and covert slurs. He cites an example from a college music class in which a professor told the class that ‘Black people played Chopin better than white people because of the embedded jungle rhythms in their blood.’
I’ll leave it there. I don’t want to ruin the twists and turns of the violin’s provenance, the raising of money to ransom it, the who done it. But I will say this —there was a letter written phonetically by Ray’s grandmother found as the mystery progresses. She tells the story in Leon’s, the enslaved grandfather’s, words and voice. He played the violin for his Master who possibly was also his father. The letter reveals the brutality visited upon the slaves at this plantation and how the music Leon played on that notorious violin protected him from that inhuman cruelty. Not so for the rest of the family.
I found my heart racing in more than one chapter. Not from the mystery itself but from Ray’s life and the legacy he was left with.
One more book, perhaps taken from a different area of life to show how our history plays out to this day. If you love music, are interested in the life and practice of a classical musician, and enjoy a bloodless mystery, I think you’ll enjoy your time spent with Ray and his violin.