October 14, 2009

BOOKS: Devil's Trill, Gerald Elias (2009)

The Grimsley Competition is held only once every 13 years, and only violinists under the age of 13 are allowed to enter. The winner gets to perform at Carnegie Hall on the legendary Piccolino Stradivarius, a 3/4 scale violin with a particularly beautiful tone and a cursed history. But this year's winner may not get that opportunity, because on the night of the competition, the Piccolino is stolen.

Our amateur detective is Daniel Jacobus, a cantankerous violin teacher who had to give up his own performing career after losing his eyesight. 52 years earlier, he had entered the Grimsley himself, and harbors great resentment towards the competition for a variety of reasons. That resentment, of which he has made no secret, makes him a leading suspect in the theft. Daniel hopes to prove that the Piccolino was stolen by one of the members of the organization that organizes the Grimsley, many of whom have a financial interest in the success of the competition's young winners.

The story here is a good one, and the mystery is entertaining. Daniel's sidekicks, insurance investigator Nathaniel Williams and young violin student Yumi Shinagawa, are well-drawn characters, and the interplay among the three is often quite amusing. But the prose is painfully clunky and leaden, and Jacobus too often serves as a mere mouthpiece for what are clearly Elias' own grumpy views about the world of classical music (Competitions, bad! Competitions for the young, evil!).

A very mixed bag here. There's just enough good that I'm curious to see what Elias does next (the jacket copy says this is the first of a series), but if his writing skills don't catch up to his plotting skills, I won't stick with him for long.

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