Tchaikovsky Concert Hall

At a time when the 1619 Project, terms like critical race theory and cancel culture are in vogue a novel that explores the depths of American racism is very prescient.  The novel in question is Brendan Slocomb’s first literary entry, THE VIOLIN CONSPIRACY which centers on the idea that black classical musicians seem to be an anomaly particular a talented violin soloist in American society.  Slocumb’s effort strikes a nerve as it drives home its theme of the lack of opportunity for blacks in high brow musical culture and how members of society react to people of color who have the talent but not the opportunity to pursue a career performing classical music because of the attitude of an elitist aristocratic club that dominates this field.

It is always rewarding when an author’s first novel exceeds expectations.  Slocumb’s work reflects his own struggle to live his life and play the music he loved, when often stymied  for the reasons he states were incomprehensible.  The novel centers around an amazing character, Rayquan (Ray) McMillan, a poor young black man from North Carolina who is blessed with classical music talent and an ability to convey it through the strings of his violin.  He is an individual who is confronted with racist attitudes and actions almost at every turn and is able to overcome the roadblocks placed in front of him by the force of his convictions and personality.  It is a story of family dysfunction, greed, highlighted by an individuals’ fight to maintain his dignity and pursue his love of music when confronted by the inequities of American society.

The story begins as Ray is preparing to compete in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, the world’s most prestigious and difficult classical music competition judged by the top musicians in the world.  Almost immediately a significant impediment emerges as after spending time in New York with girl friend Nicole he flies back to his home in Charlotte and discovers that his violin has been stolen.  The violin is not just any musical instrument, but a Stradivarius valued at $10 million.  Ray is at a loss.  First the violin was a gift from his deceased grandmother Nora, secondly it is the only violin he believes that he can play and win the competition.

(Brendan Slocumb, author)

The plot revolves around the theft, but more so is a commentary about American society.  Slocumb does a superb job developing the background to the crime tracing the evolution of how the violin came into the possession of Grandma Nora’s great grandfather, Pop Pop who was a slave on a Georgia plantation and was freed following the Civil War when his master, and possibly his father gave him the violin.  When the FBI is brought in to investigate two suspects immediately come to the fore.  First, the Marks family, descendants of the Georgia slave owners who claim the violin belongs to them as Pop Pop or Leon as he was known as a slave stole the instrument.  Second, Ray’s own family, particular his mother and Uncle who believe the violin belongs to the entire family and should be sold with the proceeds divided up between five family members.

Ray is adamant that he will not give up his prized possession as the novel evolves.  For Ray, the story reflects his own demons as he struggles with the concept of how a black person could be a violinist of his quality.  Slocumb creates numerous scenes from school, work, and performing that reflect many of the author’s own life experiences dealing with racial discrimination.  Slocumb carefully develops the rift between Ray and his family centering on his mother who is a selfish self-absorbed individual who uses her son’s ability as her meal ticket.  Growing up she tried to block Ray’s love of music preventing him from practicing in the house and demanding that he get a job at a Popeye’s restaurant so he could buy her a 60 inch television.  But for Ray, “every time the conductor raised the baton, a new joy blossomed in his chest.  Each note felt special, a gift.”  This special individual believed that he not only had to prove his talent to white audiences, his family, particularly his mother, but to his own race.

Slocumb creates a number of important characters that allow the novel to proceed at a smooth pace and maintain the interest of his readers. Janice Stevens, a university professor who becomes his friend and mentor.  Grandma Nora teaches Ray humility and strategies to cope with the racism he confronts at every turn.  The Marks family, a group of bigoted racists who see the opportunity for a big pay day.  The McMillans who are nothing but hangers on hoping to cash in on Ray’s talent, and lastly, his girlfriend Nicole.

THE VIOLIN CONSPIRACY takes the reader on an important journey providing insights into a field that most do not associate with racism.  It is delicately presented with pathos and empathy and should garner Mr. Slocumb a great deal of admiration and success for his literary thriller.  As Joshua Barone states in his New York Times review “Yet Slocumb isn’t too different from his protagonist: a natural.  He easily conjures the thrill of mastering a tough musical passage and the tinnitus-like torture of everyday racism.  There is a lot of work ahead as he writes his second novel, but as a teacher says to Ray, ‘precision and technique can be learned.’  After all, that’s just practice.”*

*Joshua Barone, “String Theory,” New York Times, February 27, 2022

(Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, Moscow)


File:President George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev pose for a photo during their meeting in Helsinki.jpg
(Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and President George H. Bush)

As I am writing I am listening to the horrific news emanating from Ukraine.  The Russian invasion that began on February 24, 2022, continues to produce atrocity after atrocity with no end in sight.  By launching his “special military operation,” Vladimir Putin has ended the post-Cold War settlement in Eastern Europe in pursuit of his fantasy of an ethno-nationalistic Pan Slavic empire for Russia as he tries to recreate the old Soviet Union.  His stated goal was to block the NATO threat embodied by Ukraine, a country that seeks to join the Atlantic Alliance for protection against Moscow.  Putin’s actions were based on his perceived weakness of NATO countries and their lack of unity.  The result, instead of pushing NATO away from his border, Putin has reinvigorated NATO and brought the west closer than it has been since World War II.  Sanctions against Russia, arming Ukraine, financial aid, intelligence sharing, and humanitarian aid are all designed to help Kyiv overcome Putin’s rage as the war has not gone as he had planned.  Based on the Russian President’s comments, who knows how far he will push his war of choice and how it will end.  The question is how did we get to this point?  What can be done to mitigate the situation?  Lastly, what weapons will Putin employ as he hints about tactical nuclear weapons and chemical and biological warfare if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy does not capitulate.

M.E. Sarotte, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the Council of Foreign Relations has authored the perfect book to try and understand the background of the current crisis.  Her monograph, NOT ONE INCH: AMERICA, RUSSIA, AND THE MAKING OF THE POST COLD WAR STALEMATE is an excellent analysis of events, personalities, and decisions made by western European, American, and Russian leaders from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 through the resignation of Boris Yeltsin as Russian president replaced by Vladimir Putin.

(President Bill Clinton and Russian president Boris Yeltsin)

Sarotte develops a thoroughly researched book that revolves around options faced by the west once the Soviet Union collapsed.  The choice was clear; either they could enable the newly independent states of Central and Eastern Europe including the Baltic states to join NATO regardless of its impact on Russia or promote cooperation with Russia’s fragile new democracy.  The move that made the most sense would have slowed the decision making process and proceeding carefully considering Russian sensitivities.  The west created an incremental security partnership open to European and post-Soviet states alike.  Potential NATO members could gain experience in working with the west and eventually gain Article 5 protection.  However, Boris Yeltsin’s decision to shed the blood of opponents in Moscow and Chechnya, the rampant inflation in Russia as it tried to transition to a market economy, bloodshed in the Balkans, and domestic political changes in the United States as Republicans took over Congress pressured the Clinton administration to push for NATO expansion all impacted the course of NATO enlargement.  As all of this evolved Vladimir Putting was rising through the Russian bureaucracy.

In breaking down her analysis into three parts, Sarotte tackles the 1989-1992 period dominated by President George H. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.  Her focus is on the “promise” offered by Baker that “not one inch” of former Soviet territory would be subject to NATO expansion.  This formed the basis of the Russian position, and as events evolved the United States and its western allies saw loopholes in any agreement that would allow them to offer NATO membership to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary in the first wave of NATO membership and keep open the possibilities for further members including the Baltic states, Romania, and others.  Gorbachev who faced internal opposition, economic issues and other roadblocks to reform would face a coup and eventual replacement by Boris Yeltsin.

The second part of the narrative, 1993-1994 was dominated by the “Boris and Bill” show as Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin developed a strong working relationship which would eventually flounder due to events and decisions that ruined their camaraderie as the US pushed for rapid NATO enlargement.  By the third part of the book, 1995-1999 the situation in Kosovo, the failed Russian economy raped by oligarchs, and Yeltsin’s uneven and unpredictable personality heightened by his drunkenness would result in Moscow and Washington failing to create lasting cooperation in the thaw after the Cold war resulting in the rise of Putin and what the world would eventually face in Ukraine.

Late French President Francois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl stand hand in hand

(The odd couple: François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl link hands at the cemetery beside the battlefield of Verdun)

Sarotte covers all bases as she highlights negotiations between the west and Russia and delves into the motivations and policies of the main personalities.  As she draws the reader in she offers a number of insightful comments and vignettes.  Among the most interesting and almost laughable was the role played by the Lewinsky Affair and Clinton’s impeachment trial in finally expanding NATO in 1998.  Sarotte’s meticulous presentation of how German unification was achieved and the withdrawal of Soviet forces from East Germany are among her strongest sections of the book, particularly the role played by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.  The nuclear problem was always present in the background.  Issues of Ukrainian nuclear weapons, the cost to destroy and relocate them, and Russia’s role were paramount.  In addition, the evolution of the situation in Ukraine is discussed further and Sarotte offers a number of historical keys that will play out and impact Kyiv which in the end will end up being invaded by Russia in 2014 in its seizure of Crimea and the recognition by Russia of two separate self-proclaimed republics in the Donbas region.

Sarotte’s work is impeccable, and I would recommend it strongly to anyone interested in a detailed presentation of the 1989-1999 period that resulted in the arrival of Vladimir Putin as the dominating figure in the Kremlin’s approach to the west and Russian expansion.  Sarotte delineates the lost opportunity for a more peaceful world with increased Russian, American and European cooperation and integration between 1989 and 1991.  Unfortunately, that opportunity has been lost and it will take many years for it to reappear, if ever.

Presidents Gorbachev and Bush hold a joint new conference at the White House to conclude the Summit meetings
(Gorbachev and Bush, Sr.)


Vaxjo, Sweden - December, 2017: The Swedish Tradition Of Lucia Is Celebrated In Vaxjo Church With So
(Vaxjo, Sweden)

There is nothing as satisfying as a Swedish noir on a cold winter’s night.  I had hoped that Leif G.W. Persson’s first installment of his Evert Backstrom series, LINDA, AS IN THE LINDA MURDERS  would meet that need.  After reading one of Persson’s earlier works and being quite satisfied, the current instance produced nothing but disappointment.  Persson, the winner of numerous crime writer’s awards begins the novel with a phone call to the Vaxjo Police Authority located in southern Sweden which would lead to a flat in town that contained a scene reflecting the rape and beating of a female victim. Immediately it became obvious that a murder had taken place and that the victim was Linda Wallin, a soon to be twenty-one year old who was due to start her third term of the police course in Vaxjo.

At issue was the fact that Wallin had been involved with another police trainee, Erik Roland Lofgren.  Since Lofgren was black, the racist element in Vaxjo enjoyed writing nasty editorials in the newspapers.  His race also figured in DNA testing when the perpetrator’s analysis pointed to a non-Nordic type.  The question was who then was responsible for the murder?

Persson does a reasonable job developing his story line – but he draws out his work to the point that the reader can become confused by what is presented.  The local police force is supplemented by members of the National Crime Force sent from Stockholm in the persons of Detective Superintendent Evert Backstrom and his investigative unit.  Persson describes Backstrom as “short, fat, primitive, but when necessary he could be both sly and slow to forget things.  He regarded himself as a wise man in the prime of life, an unfettered free spirit who preferred the quiet life of the city, and since a number of sufficient appetizing scantily clad ladies seemed to share the same view, he had no reason at all for complaint.”

Fichier:Växjö in Sweden.png

Persson uses Backstrom as a vehicle to express his opinions about police work, journalism, and society in general.  If one could imagine a cartoon character with the bubble above his head rendering expressive thoughts to himself then you have our protagonist.  Backstrom’s thoughts and commentary are racist, anti-gay, and misogynistic.  Despite his negative personality traits, he is an excellent investigator despite what some would describe as an unorthodox approach to crime solving.

The use of Backstrom as the lead character detracts from Persson’s writing and plot development.  It is clear he is not the warm fuzzy type, but he drives his unit to solve the murder which is negatively affected by his colleague’s low opinion of him as a person.  The only member of his team that he can stand to be with who he might call a friend is Deputy Inspector Jan Rogersson, an old colleague from the violent crimes division in Stockholm.  Detectives like Erik Knutsson and Peter Theron are too often the victims of his nasty commentary.  Other characters who play significant roles are Lilian Olsson a psychoanalyst attached to the Vaxjo Police Department, a woman Backstrom despises; Detective Superintendent Jan Lewin who is an excellent investigator; his civilian assistant Eva Svanstrom; Lars Martin Johansson, head of Operational Security who despised Backstrom; Detective Superintendent Bengt Olsson in charge of the investigation; Bengt Karlsson, a former abuser who now was a member of the Växjö Men Against Violence to Women Committee; Bengt Olsson, another Deputy Superintendent; and Bengt Mansson believed to be the killer. This leads to repeated comments that there are too many Bengt’s involved in the story by other characters!

(the author)

Persson’s novel, is in part an ode to good old fashioned police work.  Backstrom’s commentary about computers and other technology employed in scientific police work is not useful nor is his repeated need to drink beer.  It seems that in every scene he longs for a “lager” and can’t seem to get along without one.  Backstrom’s remarks about “poofs,” dykes, tits, queers etc. gets old after a while.  If they had been used sparingly perhaps it would be acceptable, but it is a constant barrage.  If you like this type of character then Persson has created the perfect one.  It is a shame because Backstrom as a character has potential because of his quick wit and policing skills and had Persson employed him differently it would have made for a better story.

Perhaps the best part of the book involves the post-investigative dive into the murderer’s background and the events leading to the crime.  The questioning of the accused by Anna Holt of the National Crime Unit of the victim is incisive and brilliant as she led the murderer down a path that reinforced his guilt even though he refused to accept that he had perpetrated the crime.  Persson’s focus on cognitive interviewing is important to the structure of the culminating investigation and provide important insights into how police solve crimes gaining the cooperation of the accused.

Persson does make a number of important points concerning police work and investigative journalism throughout the novel.  First, his description of the dysfunctional relationship between National and local police cooperation or “hillbilly cops” and “city police” only hurts the investigative process.  Second, the tabloid approach by the press only hinders investigations, hurts the victim’s family, and makes police work that much more difficult.

As to whether I will read another of Persson’s novels – the jury is still out.  Perhaps I will give him another chance, but if I do I hope Mr. Backstrom’s character has undergone a great deal of therapy.  At the outset I had hoped for a novel on par with Henning Mankell, but the one I read does not measure up to the late Swedish mystery writer’s work.