Living in rural North Carolina, Ray McMillian understood that racial prejudice existed. However, not until the first time he played his violin for a white audience did he realize that racist attitudes applied to him personally: “No matter how nice the suit, no matter how educated his speech or how strong the handshake, no matter how much muscle he packed on, no matter how friendly or how smart he was, none of it mattered at all. He was just a Black person. That’s all they saw and that’s all he was. He would always—always—be seen as half as good as everyone else.”
Though experiencing discrimination again and again as he dreams of and works toward becoming a world-class violinist, Ray is buoyed up by the love and advice of his grandmother. She encourages Ray to remain his sweet self and not become hardened by hateful people’s attitudes, to work twice or three times as hard as white people—even though it wasn’t fair—to achieve his musical goals; and to always respect himself and show respect to others.
When Grandma Nora gives Ray his great-great-grandfather’s battered violin, and it is later discovered that the old instrument is a Stradivarius worth $10 million, Ray’s life becomes decidedly more complicated. Though playing the violin that belonged to his enslaved ancestor gives him wings, he’s stalked by the Marks family who claim the violin belongs to them because Ray’s ancestor had once long ago been their family’s property. Ray’s own relatives also hound him incessantly, thinking the violin belongs to them and hoping to benefit monetarily from its existence.
Ray’s world is upended when the Stradivarius is stolen and a ransom note left behind a few weeks before he is to compete at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. World-renowned, the competition promises a bright future to those who win. Ray enters the pressure cooker of the competition, all the while making public pleas for funding to pay the ransom to have his violin returned and getting updates from law enforcement and others on the case about possible leads to its whereabouts.
Suspenseful plot twists, fast-paced action, and a surprising ending combine to make this novel for adults a gratifying read. Additionally, The Violin Conspiracy, which includes some offensive language, offers an in-depth window to the racism existing in the world of classical music. In notes, author Brendan Slocumb writes, “As a Black violinist, I have had to work twice as hard as my non-Black counterparts to receive the same benefits. … Struggle became a normal part of life.” He adds, “Music is for everyone. It’s not—or at least shouldn’t be—an elitist, aristocratic club that you need a membership card to appreciate: it’s a language, it’s a means of connecting us that is beyond color, beyond race, beyond the shape of your face or the size of your stock portfolio.” (Anchor)