“The Violin Conspiracy”: A Different Kind of Crime Story

The theft of a multimillion-dollar instrument puts Brendan Slocumb’s debut novel, The Violin Conspiracy, in the category of crime fiction. But Ray MacMillan leaves most of the investigating to the pros: the FBI and a savvy insurance investigator (okay, sometimes he gets personally involved). No, the real crime is the conspiracy of racism that threatens to bar Ray’s entry into the world of classical music and disrupt his quest to obtain the ultimate prize for a classical violinist: the gold medal at the famed International Tchaikovsky Competition.

To begin, Ray, a young Black man in Charlotte, North Carolina, receives a special gift from his beloved grandmother: her grandfather’s violin. For decades, she held on to it until someone in the family showed an interest in music. The instrument itself, Ray later discovers, is rare and extremely valuable. He’s offered a full scholarship to study music, and eventually he’s invited to take part in the world’s most prestigious music competition. However, a thief swaps the violin for a ransom note. There is no shortage of suspects: the family who enslaved his great-great-grandfather seeks the return of their property. His mother and his uncles have also filed suit; they resent that Ray kept the valuable instrument for himself. Ray, like any protagonist, finds himself isolated save for a few allies: his mentor, his girlfriend, and an aunt who refused to join the family’s lawsuit.

The violin, however, isn’t critical to his performance in the competition; Ray can make any instrument sing. What’s truly at stake is his ability to be seen as an equal among classical performers. In his author’s note, Slocumb states that less than two percent of classical musicians are Black, and less than 12 percent are people of color. Through Ray, Slocumb shows how someone can make changes.

If you’re looking for a Walter Mosley-style plot, this story is different. Through his pursuit of a career in music, Ray faces villains at every step of his journey. He’s every bit the underdog as Easy Rawlins, but less likely to engage in the legwork, or physical danger, needed to find his violin. Ray is fighting a conspiracy. The mark of a good one is that it’s almost undetectable and easy to deny.

Like many stories, the adversaries are often the most memorable, forming the conflicts that challenge Ray and really drive the story forward. His mother is the first, actively dissuading Ray from pursuing the uncertain future of a musician. She hates the noise of Ray’s practicing and is indifferent to the full scholarship that Ray earned, as long as he sends her money every month. Some of the lesser characters who displayed viciousness towards Ray were particularly vivid. Without them, the reader would have an incomplete understanding of Ray’s world.

On the flip side, through the portrayal of Ray’s grandmother, the epitome of love and encouragement, we understand the importance of the violin to Ray: it is his only connection to the most loving and inspirational person in his life. Grandma Nora is the one who gave Ray the advice he needed to pursue his love of music in this environment, as seen in the following passage:

“You work twice as hard. Even three times. For the rest of your life. It’s not fair, but that’s how it is. Some people will always see you as less than they are. So you have to be twice as good as them.”
“I don’t think I can do that.”
“You’re already doing it,” she said, her voice so low he could barely hear it.

Readers will enjoy Slocomb’s window into the world of classical music: performing in orchestras and as a soloist, taking part in musical competitions, and realizing the amount of practice required to be competitive. We also get a glimpse of the process to appraise, insure, maintain, and repair valuable musical instruments. Based on the author’s experience and research, this insight into the music scene sets up a realistic backdrop for Ray’s story.

Throughout the story, there are some disturbing scenes of violence and discrimination. While Ray does not experience physical trauma, these images may be anxiety-inducing, particularly for someone who has endured such behavior. Ray’s experiences of racism include music teachers not taking him seriously, a man kicking him out of his house after Ray performs at his daughter’s wedding, and a police officer arresting him for a minor traffic violation. There is also a brief and graphic account of how a slaveowner treated his “property,” which may also be upsetting.

In his author’s note, Slocumb reveals that his experiences inspired many of these scenes. They are the greatest sources of tension in the story and give us a baseline for Ray’s point of view as a young Black man both in the South and in the white-dominated world of classical music. The scenes he depicts are critical to shaping our understanding of Ray’s reality. Slocumb lays them out in plain English, as if they were occurring before our eyes.

The fight against racism is a major theme of this book, and Slocumb portrays this by putting the reader in the shoes of a person of color in a white-dominated world, subject to bias, ignorance, and hatred. Readers will discover The Violin Conspiracy is a tale of inspiration, showing that persons of color specifically, and humans in general, can overcome any barriers to entry. And the “other” crime, the mystery of the stolen violin? It keeps the reader hooked until the end; of course, we hope Ray is able to keep his link to his grandma.

The Violin Conspiracy
by Brendan Slocumb
Anchor Books
February 01, 2022