Saturday, November 3, 2012

Devil's Trill by Gerald Elias

Devils Trill
Many moons ago I played the violin.  I guess I still play, but not at the level I once did.  I even had the opportunity to have some fabulous teachers and master classes with members of the Utah Symphony.  Mrs. T. was the concert mistress of the Utah Symphony at one time, and she was my teacher from 6th grade to graduation.  You'd think I'd be better than I was with all this fancy training, but that would require something called "dedicated practice" instead of, "I wonder what my friends are doing while I'm stuck here practicing.  I'd better call."
All regrets aside, my mother, who funded all that impeccable training and is deeply distraught that I didn't keep it up, invited me to see Gerald Elias, former assistant concert master of the Utah Symphony and now mystery writer, lecture on his book Devil's Trill.  This was not just a book talk.  Elias played three of the many musical selections mentioned in the book.

What an enjoyable evening we had listening to Elias talk about his book and the the seedy and greedy underworld of classical music.  I never experienced that world myself.  In college while playing last chair in a professional symphony in California, I was more worried about my homework (I  put this in here for my mom) and if I would be able to get to the beach the next day.  I just wasn't caught up in the drama.  

Mom and I loved the musical selections as well.  I even once played the Bach Sarabande that Elias did, only he played it much better.  Thus, the difference between a professional musician and a beach bum.  When it was over, I bought the book and got it signed.  

Here is what I loved about the book:

I loved that I didn't love all the characters.  Daniel Jocobus, the protagonist,  is a crotchety, slovenly, chain-smoking, blind, old violin teacher who would rather wallow in his misery than teach his gifted students.  His lack of any lovable personality traits is precisely what makes him so enjoyable.
I loved the plot.  The violin itself is the villian in the story. This three-fourths sized Stradivarius instrument never actually existed but was created by the author and is central to the plot of the story.  The violin was made in Italy in the Golden Age of violin by a countess for her lover, Piccolino.  Her husband, in a jealous rage, kills Piccolino and thus the violin is forever named after him.  The violin is cursed forever more.  In the 20th century, the violin is played every thirteen years by the winner of the Grimsley Competition, a competition for 9 to 13 year olds.  This competition is funded by a non-profit organization that is steeped in corruption. The violin is stolen, a murder committed, and Jacobus begins the search for the violin and drags his 19-year old student, Yumi, with him.  

Stradivari violin photo
I loved the philosophical explanations about the music and why the composer wrote the piece the way he or she did.  I loved the discussions about playing the music for its beauty not just for the technical precision and the 'wow' factor.

It was informative and interesting to read how, within the confines of the story,  Elias explains the monetary value of a stringed instrument, and it is not necessarily based on how a instrument sounds.

And I loved some of the descriptive passages and "one-liners."   Let me share my favorites.
     "It seems as though competitions for child musicians, especially violinists, are no less cruel to them than cockfighting is to its bloody contestants.  And cockfighting is illegal."

From the prologue: "the book is about an often-shadowy netherworld of violin dealing, where dark currents of greed swirl quietly through the seemingly dignified white-tie-and-tail world of classical music.  In the current market, where good violins are no longer affordable to the professional musicians who would play them, fragile masterpieces from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries become a currency of obsession to dealers and collectors, and scruples are as rare as the instruments themselves."

Here is what I didn't like:

The nitty-gritty language. My mother said,  "It sounded like a bunch of rednecks at a demolition derby instead of college educated musicians at Carnegie Hall."  You see, my mom was quite colorful in her description without adding one swearword! I don't remember the professional musicians I kept company with ever using the kind of language that was in the book.  Then again, I wasn't a part of the seedy underworld of classical music.

Second, there was a sexual scene involving the young student that didn't need to be in the book.  It didn't further the plot or help me understand the characters more.   It was as if the publisher said, "Gerald, sex sells.  Throw something sexy into the middle of the book to keep the readers hooked." It just didn't need to be there.

I know that when one openly complains about language and sex in a book, they are often criticized and called a prude.  Even my former teacher Mrs. T, who is still my friend and is the most proper elderly lady you've ever met, seemed to brush off the language because the explanations of the music were done so beautifully.  So I'm a prude in my choice of literature.  I embrace my prudishness. I am free to say that the book would have been just as good, if not better without those items.

I'm going to give Devil's Trill four stars.  I recommend this book whether you are a musician or not, because of its original premise and colorful characters. 


  1. I don't think you're a prude, but maybe that makes me a prude? Just reading your blog gives me the guilt trip I need to practice more and better. Tomorrow is another day!

  2. Wow, interesting book.
    My violin practice is somewhat lapsed too but my mother is herself a lapsed pianist so can't pass comment!


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