"The Violin Conspiracy" is Brendan Slocumb's first novel. It was during the summer of 2020, that Slocumb found himself with time and space brought on by pandemic stay at home orders to delve into writing this story. As a musician, Brendan has performed on violin with the Washington Metropolitan Symphony, the McLean Symphony, the Prince George's Philharmonic, and the Alexandria Symphony. Brendan has been a music educator for the past 23 years in public and private schools teaching general music, orchestra and guitar ensembles. He is the founder of the nonprofit organization, Hands Across the Sea, based in the Philippines. In his spare time, Brendan enjoys writing, exercising, collecting comic books and action figures, and performing with his rock band, Geppetto's Wüd.
1. What were your initial theories about the disappearance of Ray’s violin? How did the novel’s multilayered timeline enhance the suspense?
2. Ray finds solace and invigorating challenges in a musical style that originated in Europe. He says that when considering the many facets of his identity, he’s a musician first. Is music a universal medium? Do the cultural origins of your favorite music matter?
3. What does Ray and Nicole’s shared creativity demonstrate about compatibility in a relationship?
4. Who is the Janice in your life? When have you served as a Janice for someone else, lighting the way for others who lack the tools (or the hope) they need to thrive?
5. As you watched Alicia pursue leads, what did you observe about her ability to combine practical skills with an understanding of human motivation—including the motivation of an artist?
6. When Ray is forced to procure a replacement violin from Mischa, what did you discover about the personalities of the various instruments, and the way music can become an extension of a performer’s soul?
7. What does Leon’s story teach us about the power of legacies that endure across generations? As music became the key to his survival, how did it also become his voice? What did that voice whisper to those around him, and, years later, to Ray?
8. What enables the Marks family to justify and distort their own legacies? Do you think their attitude is typical of the way most Americans approach the realities of slavery in the nation’s history?
9. What traits does Ray share with his Serbian rival, Mikhail Lezenkov? What advantages does each of them bring to the Tchaikovsky Competition? What distinguishes high achievers who thrive on competition (in any endeavor, from music to sports) from those who are more comfortable as aficionados?
10. In his Author’s Note, Brendan Slocumb reveals that the novel’s wedding scene and the Baton Rouge shakedown are based on his own experiences. How did this knowledge affect your experience of the book? How hopeful are you that such outrageous incidents of racial profiling and abuse will diminish in your lifetime?
11. One important aspect of The Violin Conspiracy is economics. Until he develops star power, Ray must continually scrimp and calculate to get by on far less than a living wage. What are the forces that created his poverty? What are the forces that make a Stradivarius worth millions? Besides a price tag, what other methods can we use to assess value?
12. Discuss Ray’s family. What does the novel say about the families we inherit and the families we create (such as the nurturing mentorship Ray receives from Janice)? What accounts for the warmth and generosity of Grandma Nora, compared to the self-centered greed of Ray’s mom? How would you respond if your extended family asked you to share the bounty of your labor with them?
13. Ray’s musical skill and his incredible self-discipline make him distinct. Do you attribute these distinctions to genetic inner strength—perhaps inherited from Leon Marks—or to other factors?
14. Throughout the novel, we learn about the pieces that have special significance to Ray, forming an extensive playlist for you to enjoy while discussing the book with your reading group. What do you notice about the emotions that permeate these works?
15. The Author’s Note ends with the observation, “Together, we are a symphony.” In your opinion, has society become less symphonic and more populated by soloists? What could we achieve if our symphonies of community grew bigger and more numerous?