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What to Read Next (No. 282): Musical Mysteries
Happy Friday, readers!
The literary world said goodbye to the legendary Cormac McCarthy this week. Though I’ve only read a few of his dozen novels, No Country for Old Men and The Road were incredible, inimitable, unforgettable reading experiences that have stayed with me through the years. From The Road, in particular, I think of the dad’s admonition to “carry the fire” on a weekly basis. RIP, Cormac. Generations of readers have enjoyed and studied your works, and generations more will do so in the future.
Now to our regularly scheduled programming. . .
My unplanned summer of mystery continues, but with a unique angle this week. Our book club recently read Brendan Slocumb’s A Violin Conspiracy, which got me exploring other mystery and crime novels that incorporate music. I then realized that I hadn’t yet written about one of my favorite Louise Penny novels, which takes place in a monastery famous for its singing monks.
Not only does music make for a unique plot point for a crime novel, it also provides a tailor-made soundtrack to listen to while reading. I even included a couple Spotify playlists this week for your enjoyment.
As always, I’d love to know what you’re reading and enjoying this week!
The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny
My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Genre: Fiction (Mystery)
Though a lot of the action in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series takes place in the small village of Three Pines, Quebec, perhaps the most memorable stories are those that take place somewhere else.
In The Beautiful Mystery, Gamache and his second-in-command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, are brought to a monastery hidden deep in the woods of Quebec. Even though the location of this refuge is a tightly kept secret, these monks are world-renowned for their beautiful Gregorian music.
Of course, Gamache and Beauvoir aren’t just there to admire the beautiful acoustics of the abbey. They’re investigating the murder of a brother — a murder that only a fellow monk could have perpetrated.
It’s Penny’s version of a locked-room mystery; we know all the possible suspects up front and follow the inspectors as they reveal the hidden rifts in this close-knit community. Who could’ve guessed that the success of their voices would have brought so much trouble?
As always, Penny’s strengths are less about the plot and more about the psychology and relationships involved, including between the inspectors themselves. Armand Gamache is not your typical mystery novel protagonist. He’s deeply kind, loving, empathetic, and earnest — qualities that stand out in a genre flooded with hard-edged, sarcastic assholes.
Throughout her work, Penny excels at exploring art, creativity, power, and meaning — with a bit of homicide thrown in. The Beautiful Mystery uniquely does so through the lens of music, faith, and a literal brotherhood. I wouldn’t call it a standalone, but it is more so than the other books in the series. A must-read for fans of mysteries!
The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb
My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Genre: Fiction (General/Mystery)
Author Brendan Slocumb’s story is important to remember while reading his debut novel. Before writing a book during the doldrums of the early COVID lockdowns, Slocumb made a career as a violinist. Being a Black man in the world of classical music isn’t easy, to say the least. In writing The Violin Conspiracy, Slocumb found an outlet for sharing some of that experience, while also providing a bit of extra entertainment in the form of a mystery.
The premise of the story is irresistible: Ray McMillian, a Black teenager, inherits a violin from his grandmother, only to find out later that it’s a rare Stradivarius worth $10 million. He pursues music without abandon and becomes a star, performing with world-renowned orchestras and on the verge of competing for the most prestigious prize in classical music. One morning, though, he wakes up to find his precious violin missing from its case.
Sleuthing ensues, but the mystery isn’t actually the highlight of the novel. Where Slocumb really excels is in describing the racism encountered by Black folks in the music world, as well as in conveying the beauty, power, and meaning of music. His prose and plotting could use a little work, but in those two areas he shined.
The Violin Conspiracy was our book club’s pick for May and it had quite mixed reviews in our group, ranging from 1.5 to 4 stars (I gave it 3.5). The primary complaint was that the writing simply wasn’t up to our usual standards and the story felt amateurish in places.
I still found The Violin Conspiracy worthwhile, especially knowing Slocumb’s background. It’s probably not for you if you’re looking for rich prose and a complex story, but I don’t hesitate to recommend it for those interested in music and want some exploration of what it means to be Black in that community.
Thanks for reading! I deeply appreciate the time and inbox space.