When I opened Brendan Slocumb’s debut novel, The Violin Conspiracy, I was immediately transported to a place I’d never been, surrounded by characters I’d never met. In the crowded world of fiction, that’s no small accomplishment. Taking inspiration from his day job as a music teacher, Slocumb has orchestrated an engaging and suspenseful story about an aspiring musician and his great-great-grandfather’s violin ... so wonderfully written, especially its descriptions of music, that at times I questioned whether I was reading or listening to a concert; the notes in Bach’s Chaconne or Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 21 in E Minor practically floated up from the pages. Slocumb is equally adept at suspense, whether he’s conveying the ticktock of the main mystery or the heart-pounding, fist-clenching realities Ray has to face as a young Black man in America. This novel, which will keep readers on the edge of their seats until the very last page, is sure to be a favorite in 2022.
... it’s remarkable that a life like this makes for such a page-turner in Brendan Slocumb’s debut novel, The Violin Conspiracy, a musical bildungsroman cleverly contained within a literary thriller ... The writing isn’t without its lapses...And the central mystery can be solved by anyone who’s seen a Golden Age Hollywood noir ... Yet Slocumb isn’t too different from his protagonist: a natural. He easily conjures the thrill of mastering a tough musical passage and the tinnitus-like torture of everyday racism. There is a lot of work ahead as he writes his second novel, but as a teacher says to Ray, 'Precision and technique can be learned.' After all, that’s just practice.
... deeply engrossing ... Brendan Slocumb's part mystery, part coming-of-age novel unfolds layer by complicated layer. The smooth transition to Ray's past effectively introduces a boy whose love for music is instantly infectious. The steps that lead to the discovery of the Stradivarius proceed with suspense and hope, sharing with readers the anxiously excited emotions of a young man enraptured by music, driven to push himself, ready to prove everyone wrong...At the same time, the microaggressions and blatant racism that Ray experiences, both in the past and in the present, illuminate a harsh reality ... Yet through it all, Slocumb imbues Ray with both an admirable patience and an unyielding self-respect, a clear message that it is important--and necessary--to assert one's own worth ... The relationship between Ray and his girlfriend is a fiery addition to the story, and Ray's bumbling charisma a welcome comic relief ... For those who see themselves in Ray, and for those pursuing their passion, his journey is an unmitigated source of inspiration. The multilayered narrative provides insight into one Black man's hard-won success, encouraging compassion for how people of color must surmount additional, unnecessary hurdles. It also takes society to task for discriminatory obstacles that prove insurmountable. Authentic and unexaggerated, this captivating coming-of-age story meets suspenseful crime mystery is a sharp debut.
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 insist 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 ... 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 ... Where Slocumb shines, even when his writing becomes a little stiff, is in the passages where he shows Ray's grit ... . 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.
There are so many captivating things about this novel…the insight the reader gets as to what it takes to be a classical musician, the background on the history of violins (and one violin in particular) and how they’re made, the main character’s determination in the face of struggle, family dynamics and expectations, racial issues that rear their ugly heads, and a mysterious theft of a priceless instrument…I could go on and on. Put all this together, and you get a beautiful story about a boy who loved his grandmother more than anyone in the world…one who persevered to become a classical violinist and prove to everyone that he could do it. Brendan Slocumb effortlessly keeps his story flowing, leaving the reader rooting for Ray McMillian while trying to put the pieces of the theft together. Such a great read!
... [a] galvanizing blend of thriller, coming-of-age drama, and probing portrait of racism ... As Slocumb, himself a Black violinist, describes Ray’s apprenticeship, always working 'twice as hard as his non-Black counterparts,' we are drawn completely into this moving story of an unfettered love of music and a passionate commitment to performing it. Skillfully juggling his two timelines, Slocumb builds tension exquisitely while writing about music with both technical precision and richly evocative metaphors. This flawless debut will do for classical music what The Queen’s Gambit did for chess.
Slocumb, a former principal violinist and concertmaster, manages a delicate balance in his debut ... This novel brings an unflinching eye to the sometimes-cutthroat world of classical music, its very white culture, and the challenges a talented young Black violinist might face in that world. But in Ray, a man who strives toward honor and kindness despite the racist acts (some of them violent) he endures, the story also finds its heart. Strongly recommended.
This one is a page-turner very much in the spirit of Ned Bauman’s The Teleportation Accident. Through the whole story, we are not only pulled along by the mystery of the theft but by the trajectory of Ray’s career. There’s something satisfying watching his confidence build alongside his musical skill—and yet he never grows cocky or condescending. The commentary on prejudice and systemic abuse is quite pointed, often subtle, and just as often not. Ray’s experiences no doubt resonate with many musicians ... The characters are distinct and charming (even when you dislike them, you enjoy disliking them) ... The dialogue is well constructed, helping to maintain a crisp pace, as well as bringing the characters even further to life through their various voices and relationships. The Violin Conspiracy delights about eighty-five percent of the time ... The other fifteen percent—that falls a bit short—comes from three things. The first is the musical terminology...If you already know what they mean, good for you. But for those of us who aren’t musical experts, it’s a bit of a stumbling block...The second thing is the book’s occasional treatment of women...The third thing—and the one perhaps worth the most consideration—is the resolution to the mystery itself ... Whether it’s the eighty-five percent or the fifteen percent which wins out very much depends on the reader. If you’re here for character-driven work, great dialogue, feel-good moments, and quite a few laughs, you’ll probably love The Violin Conspiracy. If you’ve signed up for a tense, satisfying mystery, there is a whole section at Barnes and Noble devoted to them.
... entertaining ... While the whodunit element of Slocumb’s novel is unlikely to stump mystery fans, his writing is strong, if a little unpolished in parts. Still, it’s a gripping novel, and Slocumb, himself a violinist, does an excellent job explaining the world of classical music to those who might be unfamiliar with it ... A solid page-turner.