This is an engaging, quick mystery with building suspense and some valuable underlying messages about racism in America. Awarded four stars on Goodreads, though that might be a bit generous.
Author Brendan Slocumb is a former principal violinist for the UNC Symphony Orchestra, an award-winning music teacher, and a person of color. So I suspect the protagonist in THE VIOLIN CONSPIRACY might be Slocumb’s alter ego. Because character Ray McMillan is a poor, gifted, black, and largely self-taught violinist in North Carolina (where the author grew up) who aspires to be a globally renowned soloist.
Ray turns out to be a musical genius but his dedication and hard work are continually hampered by the pervasiveness of the racism he encounters. (Just think about how white most symphony orchestras tend to be.) Prejudice limits Ray’s early opportunities in school, his ability to practice, his chances of earning extra money from occasional gigs, and his access to the best training. He’s also disadvantaged by a less than supportive family. EXCEPT for his grandmother – the one person who consistently believes in Ray and his ability.
In some ways, this book feels like it has two distinct sections. The mystery is set up at the very beginning and then set aside. What follows is a long section that reads more like a novel, focusing on Ray’s childhood, the racism he encounters, his persistence in the face of obstacles, and the way that persistence slowly leads him to success. The second part of the book then picks up the mystery again which focuses on Ray’s family violin.
It is his Grandma who gives Ray his great-grandfather’s (a former enslaved man) fiddle, which has sat idle for generations, since no one else in the family had shown Ray’s interest in music. For many reasons (I’m avoiding spoilers here), that fiddle literally changes Ray’s life, his performances, his fame, most of his family relationships, even his romantic life. But you’ll find out why and how if you decide to read the book. A lot of suspicion and greed begins to form around Ray’s inherited fiddle. Especially as he prepares to compete in the world famous International Tchaikovsky Music Competition in Moscow.
Lots of twists and turns as hotel maids, police, detectives, insurance agents, and other musicians are introduced. But I found the mystery section increasingly slow to unfold. In fact, it was much slower than the pacing of the first part of the story. I still kept reading, of course, wanting to know how the mystery would be resolved.
Overall, I found the story compelling, the pacing uneven, the spotlight on relentless racism completely believable and sobering, and the quality of the writing acceptable. (It is, after all, this author’s first novel.) If you have any question about how truthful the episodes of racism are, be sure to read the Author’s Note at the end. It’s where Slocumb speaks quite directly to his own experiences.
More about the author, Brendan Slocumb.