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Review: ‘The Violin Conspiracy’ could be one of the year’s big crowd-pleasers

UPDATED: Sun., Feb. 6, 2022

“The Violin Conspiracy” by Brendan Slocumb  (Anchor Books)
“The Violin Conspiracy” by Brendan Slocumb (Anchor Books)
By Victoria Christopher Murray Special to the Washington Post

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.

Rayquan (who prefers to be called Ray) McMillian is a senior in high school with lofty aspirations. His mother, who doesn’t understand her son’s obsession with “that fiddle,” wants him to graduate early so he can get a job to help pay the bills: “You could have been making good money at Popeyes by now.” But Ray loves playing the violin, and he plays it well. If Ray were a white teenager, he’d be considered a prodigy, but most people do not take this young Black violinist seriously.

In the beginning, there is only one person who believes in Ray – his Grandma Nora, who delights in her favorite grandchild’s musical gift. She encourages Ray to follow his passion because she understands it. “You know my PopPop used to play fiddle, don’t you? I loved hearing him when I was a little girl,” she tells her grandson. “That’s where you get your talent.”

PopPop, Nora’s grandfather, was an enslaved man who played the fiddle for his enslaver, Thomas Marks. “He knew playing that fiddle kept him and his family alive, baby,” Nora tells Ray. Once PopPop was set free, Marks gave him the fiddle. Since then, the instrument has been passed down through generations, though never used. But maybe, Nora thinks, that could change: She finds the instrument in the attic and presents it to Ray.

The young man knows he has been given a treasure even if it is a filthy mess with cracked and missing and warped pieces. Ray finds a way to restore it, and the instrument becomes his companion on a journey to becoming a classically trained violinist who performs across the country but doesn’t miss the chance to blast Eric B. & Rakim when he’s riding in his car alone.

The trouble begins when Ray starts making the auditioning rounds and considers upgrading his violin only to discover that PopPop’s was no ordinary fiddle. It’s an 18th century Stradivarius worth about $10 million.

Ray becomes a sensation (thanks in large part to his violin), especially when he decides to compete in the Tchaikovsky Competition, one of the most prestigious classical music tournaments. For two years, Ray does little more than tour and practice in preparation; his greatest desire is to become the first American to win in his category. It would be a major accomplishment. Never before has there been someone like Rayquan McMillian – a young Black American man with a Stradivarius violin standing on the world stage.

Then, two weeks before the competition, Ray opens his violin case to find only a white Chuck Taylor sneaker and a ransom note. The police and FBI are enlisted, but where should Ray and the authorities begin?

With Ray’s family, who’ve been trying to cash in on the fiddle ever since its real value was discovered? Or with members of the Marks family, enslavers’ descendants who now claim the violin belongs to them? Everyone is a suspect, and the clock is ticking.

“The Violin Conspiracy” is 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.

Victoria Christopher Murray is the author of more than 20 novels. She most recently co-wrote the bestselling novel “The Personal Librarian.”

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