Book Review 

Self-Discovery in a Musical Mystery: The Violin Conspiracy

Are family ties stronger than horsehair? How about ten million dollars? In Brendan Slocumb’s

The Violin Conspiracy, musician Ray McMillian comes face-to-face with these questions when

his prized violin goes missing and his family tree is shaken to the very roots.

Ray’s story is strung together with family ties, coated with a dusting of violin rosin. As a young

Black musician growing up in North Carolina, Ray faces pressure from his family to graduate

high school and get a well-paying job, but he stays true to his grandmother’s dying wish of

“staying the sweet boy that Grandma loves so much.” This means continuing to play his great-

great-grandfather’s violin, a rare Stradivarius with (we soon learn) a complicated history. While

in college on a music scholarship, Ray learns that the fiddle passed down from his enslaved

great-great grandfather is actually a rare seventeenth-century violin worth roughly $10 million.

Pandemonium ensues: Ray’s opportunities in the music industry skyrocket, while his family ties

begin to crumble. When Ray’s violin is stolen, replaced in its case with a ransom note and

sneaker, his life falls further into disharmony and he must reconsider his family’s difficult past

while navigating the mounting problems of the present.

While Ray faces each new challenge with an outer sense of steadfast calm, his internal unease

swells. By interrupting the frenzied plot with periods of quiet introspection, Slocumb

demonstrates the friction between Ray’s professional success and perceived self-worth. This

conflict is apparent during Ray’s debut performance as a soloist, when he recalls his

grandmother’s advice to “stand tall” and decides that “no matter what anybody threw at him, he

was not going away.”

Throughout his career, Ray is plagued by racist assumptions about his talent and fitness as a

violinist. He recalls many performances where he is one of a handful of—if not the only—Black

musicians in the orchestra. The message from his industry is clear: Black performers don’t

belong in classical music. When his violin is stolen, Ray’s insecurities return in full force. He

fears that “[h]e was exactly what they said he was. Incompetent. Irresponsible. It was all true,

true, true. He not only wasn’t good enough, but he’d never been good enough.” As the novel

unfolds, Ray must learn (and re-learn) that his own self-perception in the face of societal

stereotypes is what matters.

While the novel presents itself as a mystery, with its plot driven by the whodunit of the violin

theft, the story and its themes are far more complex. The loss of Ray’s violin is paralleled with

the fraying of generational ties and family bonds. With the death of Ray’s great-great

grandfather, the family’s connection to music is lost; the violin itself is tucked away, forgotten in

the attic until Ray comes along. Ray’s family only renews its interest in the violin once they

realize its financial value—and try suing him to get it back. At the same time, the family that had

formerly enslaved Ray’s great-great grandfather also sues for ownership of the Stradivarius,

which had been given as a token of reparations for his enslavement.

Deviating from the traditional structure of a mystery, the climax of the novel is not the recovery

of the violin, but rather Ray’s performance in the Tchaikovsky Competition. As Ray prepares for

his final performance, he realizes that “he would remember this forever”; as he begins to play, “it

was just him and the music now, and the future was endless.” By eschewing the classic framing

of the mystery genre, Slocumb allows for a discovery even greater than a multi-million-dollar

instrument: the discovery of self-confidence.

Slocumb’s novel is itself paced like a Tchaikovsky composition, filled with leisurely swells that

lead to allegro rhythms, then fall back into stillness before building up again. At each turn, Ray

faces a new dilemma, whether as a musician, a grandson, or a man. The Violin Conspiracy posits

that music has the sweeping ability to connect us all—to one another, our pasts, and ourselves.

Sydney Burns is a Penn State student and an intern for the Center for American Literary Studies.