While wandering through the local Barnes & Noble recently, I noticed a violin on the cover of a book called Devil’s Trill in the Staff Picks section. On reading the inside back cover, I saw that the author, Gerald Elias, is indeed the violinist I knew at Yale who left New Haven to join the Boston Symphony. He’s now Associate Concertmaster of the Utah Symphony and has embarked on a second career writing murder mysteries! And the back cover convinced me that I had to delve into the novel — how many murder mysteries have you seen with raves by John Williams and Anton Coppola? To quote the latter, “The suspense assumes a Rossinian crescendo and is capped by a virtuosic climax worthy of Paganini.” I mean, really!
Jerry’s hero (or perhaps anti-hero) is unlikely in the extreme — Daniel Jacobus (aka “Jake”) is an elderly, blind, cranky violin teacher who has hidden himself away in a cabin in the Berkshires and does all he can to convince his students to go away and leave him in peace. Jake grudgingly attends a recital at Carnegie Hall of the winner of a violin competition for proteges under 13 (held only every 13 years) where the prize includes the chance to play the Piccolino Stradivarius violin. (The back story involves a violin virtuoso midget with a yen for seducing the wrong women, for whom the Piccolino was made. No blood in the varnish, but still…) Well, the violin gets stolen, Jake is the prime suspect, his best friend (a former cellist turned insurance claims investigator) shows up, and Jake has a new violin student sent by a dear colleague in Japan. A very unlikely trio indeed. The mystery of the lost violin is rather intriguing and I wish he’d left it at that — the murder is the weakest part of the plot. But hey — there isn’t a book category for missing violin mysteries.
What makes the book so much fun for a classical musician is that Jerry’s characters are so readily recognizable to us who have gone through the music school / conservatory world. Set in New York, one could easily make comparisons to specific individuals (though his characters are more than a bit over the top), and I even recognized a last name of a former colleague. All of this makes it an extremely fun read, including the trip to Japan Jake takes with his young student. He brings in a Juilliard teacher, violin dealer, music critic, competition administrator, obnoxious parent of a protege, clueless protege, etc. But Jerry also uses teaching Yumi, Jake’s young new student, to express his own thoughts about music, listening to and playing music, and how to achieve something exceptional when performing. Spoken through the crusty Daniel Jacobus rather than his own voice, it’s almost like getting a chance to sit in on a lesson with a great master. Just from reading his book, I’m convinced that Jerry is a very excellent teacher indeed!
You can get lots more info about the book from Jerry’s website, and read several published reviews here. According to his website, he’s already written the sequel, Danse Macabre, and is working on a third book in the series. So much more fun in store for us ahead!