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.