People, people, you need to read The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb: a unique debut and a compelling mystery.

Ray McMillian is a poor Black kid growing up in rural Carolina with a gift no one but his beloved Grandma Nora appreciates or supports: he’s a talented and passionate violinist. He’s also self-taught. A quiet loner, music frames his world. He plays on a school instrument using a jerry-rigged mute to muffle the sounds of practicing at home. Still, his mother complains about the noise and wants him to fast-track his GED and start earning—as anything but a musician.

When Grandma Nora gives him an old violin that belonged to his great grandfather—a freed slave—everything changes. The beaten-up fiddle becomes an extension of himself. When he’s playing it, the music resonates in his marrow. Despite battling prejudice in the world of classical music and derision from his family, he’s offered a full scholarship to college, and his star rises.

Music allows him to connect with people, but he has to work twice as hard as other young musicians to be accepted. His professor encourages Ray to buy a serious instrument, but that feels disloyal—to the violin and his grandmother. Instead, he hires an expert to restore PopPop’s fiddle, and discovers he owns a ten-million-dollar Stradivarius.

The media obsesses over his story, and others lay claim to his Strad. Ray, however, focuses on becoming the first American and the first Black violinist to win the Tchaikovsky Competition, the Olympics of the classical music world. But time stops before he can travel to Moscow to compete.

PopPop’s fiddle has been stolen; Ray is devastated. Nothing matters beyond getting his violin back. Without it, he’s unanchored. He mourns the weight of the case on his back, the feel of its body under his jaw, the beauty of the sound it produces. As his fingers tingle with the memory muscle of playing, I felt every stage of his grief.

Gorgeous writing and stunning visualizations of how Ray interprets music stole my breath. Both Ray and the story are unforgettable.

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