book review

“The Violin Conspiracy”

The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb

  • Anchor Books, 2022
  • Hardcover, 345 pages
  • ISBN 978-0-593-31541-5


Book cover: The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb

Ray McMillian loves playing the violin more than anything, and nothing will stop him from pursuing his dream of becoming a professional musician. Not his mother, who thinks he should get a real job, not the fact that he can’t afford a high-caliber violin, not the racism inherent in the classical music world. And when he makes the startling discovery that his great-grandfather’s fiddle is actually a priceless Stradivarius, his star begins to rise. Then with the international Tchaikovsky Competition—the Olympics of classical music—fast approaching, his prized family heirloom is stolen. Ray is determined to get it back. But now his family and the descendants of the man who once enslaved Ray’s great-grandfather are each claiming that the violin belongs to them. With the odds stacked against him and the pressure mounting, will Ray ever see his beloved violin again?


This was a difficult but rewarding book for me, a white woman, to read. I keep up with the news, but this novel confirmed my belief about the power of well written novels: Fiction can enlighten readers and nurture empathy and understanding because of its ability to immerse us completely in the experiences of others.

This is how Ray felt when, as a high school senior, he played with a small ensemble at a wedding and experienced racism as the only Black musician:

There are moments in life when the clouds lift and the curtain of rain blows back and suddenly the world stands before you, stark and vast, and you teeter on the edge of an enormous precipice of knowing, of understanding with every fiber in your soul, every hair on your head; and this was one such moment.
(p. 55)

The mystery that underlies the story—the question of who stole Ray’s priceless violin and of whether he’ll ever get it back—fades into the background as the story of the experiences Ray must face to succeed in the rarefied world of classical music (including the night he gets lost driving on the back roads of rural Louisiana). 

But eventually the violin itself becomes a symbol that holds the full weight of the Black experience in the U.S. Ray’s grandmother had received the violin from her own grandfather, who had received it as a gift, after emancipation, from the plantation owner. The descendants of the family that had owned the plantation move to claim legal ownership of the violin because Ray’s great-great grandfather had also once been the family’s possession. With this story line, the violin becomes a potent symbol of the systemic racism that pervades U.S. culture.

I look forward to reading Brendan Slocumb’s second novel, Symphony of Secrets, which will be published on April 18,2023.

Study Notes

How a real-life stolen violin inspired Brendan Slocumb’s bestselling mystery

Shop Talk: Brendan Slocumb Absolutely Does Not Listen to Music While He’s Writing

© 2023 by Mary Daniels Brown

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