Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, October 7, 2021

Thursday, October 7, 2021: Maximum Shelf: The Violin Conspiracy

Anchor hardcovers make their debut!

Anchor Books: The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb

Anchor Books: The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb

Anchor Books: The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb

The Violin Conspiracy

by Brendan Slocumb

This deeply engrossing literary debut, told via a dual timeline, follows a Black violinist racing to solve the mystery of his stolen Stradivarius, and reveals the story of his improbable trajectory to fame.

Professional violinist Ray McMillian wakes to his worst fear: his prized violin is missing. Inside the empty case--"the obscenity of its open mouth... impossible, as if water were no longer wet"--is a note demanding $5 million for its return. Ray doesn't have that kind of money, despite being a "media darling." Worse, the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition is a month away. "Everything that everyone had ever thought about Ray--about people who looked like Ray--was now turning into reality," he thinks.

But Ray is determined to win the competition--and recover his Strad. Anyone could have a motive to steal the $10 million instrument, but the detective's top suspect? Ray's family, who, except for his sweet Grandma Nora, never wanted him to have this family heirloom. Ray's mother in particular failed to support his musical ambitions. "Stop with that noise," she was always saying when he was in high school. She wanted him to take the GED to graduate early, "get a real paying job" at Popeyes and start paying rent. Only later, when Ray began booking paid performances and sending the majority of his earnings to his family, did they care about his talent. But after they found out how much the violin was worth, selling it became their priority.

Another potentially guilty party is the Marks family, who also claim ownership of the Strad. But Ray knows that the Markses' ancestor who enslaved Ray's great-great-grandfather gifted the fiddle to him when he freed him. That story is one his Grandma Nora told him, but without proof, it's Ray's word against a white family's.

As the music competition approaches and the suspect list widens--could it be the rival violinist vying for first place?--Ray crowdfunds for the ransom money, all while waiting to see who's trying to cut short a dream he's been working toward his whole life.

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. When he takes his violin into a shop, the clerk accuses him of having stolen it. Certain orchestras book him only during Black History Month. His showmanship coach notes: "Your people are known for their jungle rhythms, no?" To the media, to college classmates, to orchestras, he feels seen "as a PR stunt, as something good for ratings, a nod to diversity."

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. Ray wishes the racist clerk a Merry Christmas; he calmly points out an organization's biases; he proves his competence not through arguing but through his instrument--all because he cherishes a piece of advice from his Grandma Nora to "stay sweet." And Ray does just that, knowing that, as a Black man, "you just put your head down and do the work. You do twice as much work as the white guy sitting next to you, and you do it twice as often, and you get half as far." This mentality, together with Ray's physical connection to the violin as part of his lineage, his legacy, his very being, elevates the search for the Strad from a mere mystery plot to an indelible character arc.

Though Slocumb links a playlist on his website, readers may find no need of it, with the evocative metaphors he uses to convey the music: "the north wind coursing through the living room"; "high soaring phrases leaping like frogs"; "beetles scaling trees, birds lifting off one branch and alighting on another"; "sunlight on a park bench"; "the glitter of water pouring endlessly from a waterfall." Perhaps more moving is Ray's inseparability from playing, how it is "like the first big drop on a roller coaster... the thrill nonstop." The relationship between Ray and his girlfriend is a fiery addition to the story ("her warmth spread through his shirt, her touch like pizzicato"), and Ray's bumbling charisma a welcome comic relief ("Why was he so terrible at talking to this woman? She was violin-shaped, right?").

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. --Samantha Zaboski

Anchor Books, $28, hardcover, 352p., 9780593315415, February 1, 2022

Anchor Books: The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb

Brendan Slocumb: Music Saved My Life

(photo: Glenn Fry)

Brendan Slocumb was born in Yuba City, Calif., and raised in Fayetteville, N.C. He was the concertmaster for the University Symphony Orchestra at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and served as principal violist. For the past 23 years, he has been a public and private school music educator, and is a Nobel Educator of Distinction. His debut novel, The Violin Conspiracy (Anchor, Feb 1, 2022) focuses on Ray McMillian, a Black violinist whose Stradivarius is stolen; the suspects include his money-hungry relatives and the white family whose ancestors once enslaved Ray's great-great-grandfather.

In addition to wanting to write about a musician of color--severely underrepresented in the classical music world--what made you decide to write this particular story?

I've been walking around with stories to tell for most of my life. I know that there are a lot of people just like me with similar stories, and we've never had the opportunity to tell them before. Nobody really cared how hard it was to play the violin or felt sorry for me if I couldn't take private lessons. Which is fine; I don't need people to feel sorry for me. But they didn't want to hear what I faced as a Black man. My perspective was vastly different from what they were used to, and by "different" it also meant that my perspective was wrong. When I told people about things that happened in my life, they would say, "No, you're exaggerating. No, that doesn't happen, absolutely not." Finally, the tragic events of 2020 made it seem like a moment when I could tell my stories and have people actually listen to me, acknowledge my experiences, and not deny that my perspective is as valid as theirs.

Why is getting his Stradivarius back such an all-consuming objective for Ray? 

This is a story about a guy who's in love with his violin because of what it represents. First, it gives him a voice, a way of articulating his emotions. He uses the violin as a means of communicating without words, as a means of reaching his audience in a way that he can never do with speech. Because it's a Strad, he's able to communicate even better, clearer, more effectively, more genuinely. Second, the Strad represents Ray's heritage, an irreplaceable piece of his family's legacy. You could even say that it's his great-great-grandfather's soul, made physical: someone Ray would never meet but felt that he knew intimately. Without the violin, he isn't whole.

Whenever Ray is challenged, he returns to the memory of his Grandma Nora in her pink housecoat. What inspired you to give Ray such a bright presence in his life? 

As a young Black man growing up in the South and learning to play violin, I'd been put down and discouraged in every way imaginable from pretty much everyone. I was a nerd, I was wasting my time, why couldn't I get a real job, quit playing that violin and go join the military. No other Black kid in my high school played violin, let alone classical music. But there was always at least one person, one encouraging voice, to keep me going. Sometimes it was a teacher, sometimes a friend. My own grandmother was named Nora, and the character in the book is based on her, down to the pink housecoat and hair rollers. Her voice was so insanely sweet. Every gesture that came from her was one of genuine love and affection. I absolutely loved re-creating her on the page.

Ray also finds light in Janice, his mentor. What do you think Ray might have done differently if Janice hadn't approached him about music school? 

Without Janice, Ray would be in jail or dead. He would have dropped out of school and gotten a job at Popeyes like his mom wanted. He would have been miserable for the rest of his life. He probably would have lain awake at night, asking himself, What if? He never would have considered college. He might have taken to drinking or to drugs. Maybe he would have beaten his wife to get rid of his frustrations. You may think I'm exaggerating here, but I hope the sense is clear: so very, very often, especially for young Black men, we have it much tougher in life because of the way society views us. It's not hyperbole for me to say that it's next to impossible to walk a day in my shoes if you're not Black. Statistically speaking, I was an endangered species. I wasn't supposed to make it to age 25. I have friends who didn't make it. They didn't have a Grandma Nora or a Janice. They didn't have an expressive outlet like music. Music can save your life--it saved mine.

Ray's first experience with direct racial discrimination--where a person tells him his skin color means he deserves less--is connected to music. Why did you choose that incident as the first time when he is so often mistreated? 

That event actually happened to me. My beta readers kept asking me to cut this scene or trim it because they couldn't believe it could happen--but it did. So it was easy for me to use that event as a framing device to show such blatant racism. If Ray hadn't absolutely loved the actual process of performing, though, that kind of racism might have been enough to make him quit altogether. Or it could have changed him into something else--someone jaded and not open to new experiences, someone bitter and angry. But Ray got a taste of what music could do, and it really showed him how much it meant to him. So that scene also allowed me to deepen Ray's love of music and performing.

Ray isn't a pushover; he calls people out on their prejudices. What made you decide to give Ray this courage?

Ray didn't start off being courageous. He learned to stand up for himself. He learned to stand tall. Music gave him the confidence, as did his mentors, Grandma Nora and Janice. He learned and grew from all his experiences. I wouldn't have wanted to write about a guy who was a pushover, who would cave to social pressures or crumble when people who didn't look like him said stupid things to him. Often, people miss the one opportunity they have to stand up for themselves and find courage. For Ray, music and the violin gave him that opportunity. I'm glad he took it.

What advice do you have for readers who want to do what they love, like Ray, but feel discouraged, whether by discrimination, societal expectation or the simple fear it will never be enough? 

Remember why it is that you're doing what you're doing, and ask yourself: Is this what I love? If the answer's yes, nobody can take it from you. That said, though, you still have to have the discipline to do the work it takes. You still have to get up in the morning and pursue that passion every day whether you feel like it or not. That's certainly the hardest part. --Samantha Zaboski

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