For me, the mark of a good story is if I continue to think about it long after I’ve finished reading it. Well, Devil’s Trill, a mystery by Gerald Elias has been on my mind since I finished reading it at lunch yesterday. There are two reasons my mind won’t let go: first, it’s a good, fun story that I enjoyed, and second, it’s a story set in the classical music world like my own novel Perceval’s Secret. Not many writers have chosen to set their stories in the classical music world, so I’m always interested in reading one that is.
The protagonist of Devil’s Trill is violinist Daniel Jacobus, getting on in years, blind, and the ultimate curmudgeon, but still passionate about music and instilling the love of music. Set in 1983 — pre-computers and cell phones and Spotify or YouTube — Jacobus has agreed to take on a young Japanese student sent to him by a good friend in Japan. Yumi Shinagawa turns out to be the real deal in many ways and receptive to Jacobus’ pedagogy. The following weekend, he decides to attend the recital at Carnegie Hall of the 9-year-old winner of the Grimsley Violin Competition, held every 13 years for violinists no older than 13 and run by the Musical Arts Project or MAP. He also attends the post-concert reception where the extremely valuable and rare violin the winner had played, the Piccolino Stradivarius, disappears. Jacobus becomes the top suspect in this theft. Into his life walks Nathaniel Williams, a musician friend who’s become an insurance investigator, who wants Jacobus (along with Yumi, it turns out) to assist him in finding the stolen violin. From this point on, the mystery of the stolen violin intertwines with the political and financial intrigues of the classical music world, along with the murder of the Grimsley winner’s violin teacher.
Elias does an excellent job of illuminating the value placed on certain violins over others, the fine line music organizations walk between pure entertainment and art, and the importance of music to humans. The title refers to a violin sonata composed by an Italian named Tartini. It’s famous for its difficulty, and for its backstory. Tartini claimed to have had a dream of the Devil playing the violin and when he woke, he tried to capture on paper the music he heard in his dream. The difference between dream and reality is a subterranean stream that flows under this story, giving it depth. I loved that Jacobus was also a teacher — it gave Elias the opportunity to also illuminate music as well as his knowledge about violin playing and the violin itself.
He took a huge gamble with Jacobus, however. This character is not at all a lovable curmudgeon. In fact, for a while I thought he was definitely irritating and stuck at his own pity party. But I was also intrigued by his irritating me, and eventually Elias reveals more of Jacobus’ story — how he became blind, what is important to him and how the world frustrates him at almost every turn. He shouts a LOT. But he also has the kind of rat-terrier-like mind that’s perfect for solving a mystery, especially one that involves a stolen violin. The supporting characters were not nearly as well developed, primarily because they are “seen” through Jacobus’ experience and point of view.
I loved the mystery, though. Certainly not your usual mystery story, it had much different twists and turns to it than usual that grew out of character motivations as well as the reality of the music world in 1983. And the murder mystery turned out to be another twist that upped the stakes for Jacobus to find the Piccolino Strad. I loved also returning to the classical music world. Not nearly as glam or stuffed shirt as so many people assume, it can get pretty cut-throat and dirty. And when a violin is worth $8 million, it can also involve a lot of money. I will say, however, regarding plot, that Elias provides the reader with a marvelous twist near the end, and then seems to drop it right there. It left me wondering what happened and if Elias knew what he’d done. As it turned out, and much to my relief, he knew what he was doing, but he wasn’t playing completely fair with the reader. I hope that in his subsequent novels, he does a better job of that.
If there were as many novels about musicians as there are about police officers, doctors, or lawyers, not to mention all sorts of criminals, maybe the reading public would be more inclined to read more books set in the classical music world. Devil’s Trill is definitely a good place for anyone who enjoys mysteries to start. And I look forward to reading more of Gerald Elias’ books.