Even though it’s been more than 30 years, author Brendan Slocumb still feels the heartbreak of his stolen violin.
During his senior year of high school, Slocumb’s family found their home ransacked after a trip to an amusement park. Slocumb, who had played the violin since he was nine, immediately went into hiding under his bed. “I looked. My instrument was gone. I looked again. It was gone,” he says. “I looked a third time and it wasn’t there.”
Slocumb had the 1953 Eugene Lehman violin for less than a year and hoped it would see him through college and into his professional recording career. “It was supposed to be my ticket to success and it was gone. It was the worst feeling in the world.”
The stolen violin is one of many life experiences that Slocumb drew on to write his debut novel, The Violin Conspiracy. He joins the LA Times Book Club on February 23 to talk about his best-selling mystery, which tells the story of Ray McMillian, a gifted violinist whose family violin – a rare Stradivarius – is about to enter one of classical music’s most prestigious competitions is stolen.
The mystery begins with the violin robbery. Then it takes a step back to Ray’s upbringing as a black teen in North Carolina and his struggles to play the violin, with unsupportive family members, a battered school loan instrument, and a lack of private tuition.
Much of the story reflects Slocumb’s life.
Born in California, Slocumb grew up in Fayetteville, NC and began playing the violin through a public school music program. For both Slocumb and his character Ray, the violin was a means of escaping a challenging childhood and a ticket to college and a professional recording career. After graduating from college with a music education major and majoring in violin and viola, Slocumb played in orchestras throughout Northern Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC. He has been teaching music students from elementary through high school for more than 20 years. He also plays in a rock band called Geppetto’s Wüd.
Slocumb grew up reading Sherlock Holmes mysteries and had always had an interest in writing, but prioritized being an artist and teacher. “I’m a songwriter for my band and that’s about the extent of my writing, apart from an awful manuscript I wrote 20 years ago that I hope no one ever sees,” he says.
He felt compelled to write The Violin Conspiracy during the upheaval of 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic began in earnest in March of this year, as schools and businesses closed and the US banned travel from Europe. “As a working musician, it really hit me because no concerts, no rehearsals, no weddings, no receptions, no concerts,” he says. “Everything has literally stopped.”
Slocumb began writing about his painful experiences as a black musician – the racism and discrimination he constantly endured from teachers, other musicians and viewers – at the hands of his character Ray.
Months later, the murder of George Floyd by white officers during a Minneapolis traffic stop sparked global protests against police brutality and anti-Black racism. “I really realized that stories like this would probably resonate better once the world saw what happened,” says Slocumb.
Classical music can be a difficult environment for musicians of color to thrive. As Slocumb explains in his author’s note, less than 2% of the musicians in US orchestras are black. Statistics are from the League of American Orchestras.
Several scenes from the novel are drawn directly from Slocumb’s life, including the day that high schooler Ray plays his first paid gig at a wedding, but is prevented from entering the venue by a racist family member.
Writing The Violin Conspiracy was also an opportunity to celebrate Slocumb’s victories and honor the people who helped him along the way. In the novel, Ray’s grandma, Nora – his first enthusiastic supporter – is named after Slocumb’s grandmother. And Ray’s mentor, Janice, is based on Dr. Rachel cousin Huang, Slocumb’s college teacher, whom he calls “a life-saving force”.
The biggest difference between Slocumb and his protagonist is Ray’s technical ability. “I have a little talent, but I live vicariously through Ray,” says Slocumb. “I’m a little jealous of him.”
Slocumb has recreated other moments from his life throughout the book. In one scene, Ray performs “Czardas,” a work by Italian composer Vittorio Monti. Ray struggles with the technicalities of the piece, particularly the overtones — or whistle-like tones produced by gently touching the strings — before working with his mentor to later nail it down during a college conference.
For Slocumb, “Czardas” was also a redemption play in college after he bombed a performance in front of his fellow students. “I was about to quit,” he recalls. “I came back a month later, my teacher gave me ‘Czardas’ to play. When I say I killed it, I absolutely destroyed it. And that was the track that gave me every bit of confidence I needed.”
“The Violin Conspiracy” was praised for its vivid musical descriptions. Here is how Slocumb describes Ray’s performance of “Czardas”: “The sad opening notes gave way to the sunlight on a park bench, the glitter of water pouring endlessly from a waterfall on a very hot summer’s day.”
In the early drafts, Slocumb says some of his lyrics were too technical. “It would make perfect sense to me and my musical colleagues, but when I had it read to a non-musician, they said, ‘This is a foreign language to me. I have no idea what that means.’”
Slocumb realized he needed to get more creative and refine the imagery that music can evoke. “It takes me to a different place. I imagine birds and a babbling brook and Cupid darting from cloud to cloud,” he says. “I wanted to make sure non-musicians could enjoy the experience that a working musician has when they perform.”
After the release of The Violin Conspiracy in 2022, acknowledgments poured in. Slocumb heard from many black musicians saying, “It’s a story I carry with me too. I went through the exact same things that Ray went through in the story and no one would believe me. Now it’s out there in the world to see and I’m vindicated.”
Slocumb says it’s gratifying to learn that the book is changing perspectives. Some readers, particularly older white males, have expressed shock at the numbers and personal experiences presented in his author’s note. “They’d say, ‘I just didn’t believe it until I read that. And now I look at people and situations differently. I now understand that I cannot see everyone through the same lens, not everyone has the same experience as me.’”
While the process of writing The Violin Conspiracy was “relatively easy,” according to Slocumb, the editing of his second novel, Symphony of Secrets, proved much more challenging. Released in April, Symphony of Secrets is a thriller about a professor who discovers that a famous American composer has stolen music from a young black artist.
“I had to make up the entire story from beginning to end, from every character to every situation,” he says. He struggled to find time to write while simultaneously performing, teaching, and promoting The Violin Conspiracy.
At first he was disappointed with his design. So he put the story aside for about six months, and when he re-read his Symphony of Secrets manuscript he thought, ‘Whoa, I really like that and that’s a good story. did i write that I just had to distance myself from it.”
Now Slocumb is comfortable in his new identity as a musical thriller writer. He is currently developing a concept for his third novel.
Finding the balance between performing, teaching and writing is still a work in progress. In February, Slocumb attempted to carve out some time in half-hour pieces to practice “czardas” again, a piece he hadn’t played in years. In these hectic times, he is grateful for the discipline he has acquired over the decades as a musician.
“It’s really, really hard,” he says. “But you’re doing it because you love it, and what else are you going to do?”
when you go
What: author Brendan Slocumb joins that LA Times book club to discuss “The Violin Conspiracy” with a Times classical music critic Mark Swed.
If: February 23 at 6 p.m. Pacific.
Where: Live streaming on the Internet. Sign up for Eventbrite to get links to clocks.
Join the book club: Sign up for the Book club newsletter for the latest books, news and live events.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2023-02-15/brendan-slocumb-the-violin-conspiracy-book-club How Brendan Slocum’s own story, The Violin Conspiracy, inspired him