Gerald Elias: Devil’s Trill and Danse Macabre

Jacobus…was dumbfounded by such a compelling, polished personal performance, unaware of anything else but the music – his own definition of a great performance. – from Devil’s Trill

Devil’s Trill is one of the more traditional mysteries I’ve read in a long while, and I’ve recently re-read books by Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Patricia Moyes. It’s also a breath of fresh air with a truly interesting main character and a fantastically interesting setting. Daniel Jacobus is an old, blind, crotchety (he gives new meaning to the word “codger”) violin teacher, and it’s also clear from the novel that he’s a teacher with a rare gift. Along with his deductive skills – honed from many years as a blind man – his gift to mystery fiction is an insight into the backstage goings-on of the classical music world.

Kicking off his novel is a prologue about the provenance of the so-called Piccolini Stradivarius, a rare violin now used only in competition by the gifted winner of a contest held every 13 years for violists under the age of 13. The winner of the Grimsby competition the year we encounter it is a ripe old nine year old. Jacobus, attending the concert and reception, is in a terrible mood as he hates the competition and all it stands for, and when the violin is stolen at the end of the evening, he’s not exactly choked up.

He’s also distracted by a new student from Japan, Yumi, who remains strong no matter the abuse he piles on her, and even better, seems flexible in her thinking and capable of actual learning. He, Yumi and his friend Nathaniel, who is looking for the eight million dollar violin for the insurance company he works for, make an interesting trio as they canvass New York, mainly interviewing various members of MAP, the group that runs the competition. The book is at it’s best when it’s firmly within the world of classical music. The background of the place where these fabulously rare and expensive instruments are sold, the backstage whiff of Carnegie Hall, the infusions of the author’s obvious love for, and knowledge of, classical music, all keep you turning the pages.

There wasn’t a murder until late in the proceedings, and though it kicks the narrative engine into gear, it almost doesn’t matter. Things wind up in Japan, another fascinatingly explored venue (you’ll want to fly over and take a bath after reading this book). The touchstones of the novel are the character of Daniel Jacobus, and the music that he loves. In the second novel, Danse Macabre, the book opens with the murder, and the narrative pace is the richer for it. Instead of a figure who Jacobus hated, as in the first novel, the victim is a friend of Jacobus, a renowned violinist well loved all over the world, and his spectacularly gruesome death is even more drenched in celebrity when his musical rival and former protege, BTower, is convicted of killing him.

The meat of the story takes place two years later: BTower is on death row, waiting a quickly approaching end, and he’s been put there mainly by testimony given by Jacobus at his trial. Of course who is recruited by BTower’s lawyer to actually prove his innocence: Jacobus. Adhering closely to the classical rules of mystery story telling, of course it’s a given that BTower is innocent, and that his innocence will not be proved until the very last second. The mystery part is Jacobus’ path to the truth; he’s again accompanied by Nathaniel (while Yumi makes a couple appearances, she’s off on a concert tour). The love of music infuses this one as much as the first, but some of the story telling kinks have been worked out, and the result is a smoothly told story that will have any reader flipping the pages to get to the end.

Each book is threaded together by one piece of music – in each, the title piece. I wasn’t familiar with the piece in the first book, but the piece in the second, which Yu-Na Kim used in her skating routine this past season, was familiar to me and it’s probably hauntingly familiar to many of you, you just may not know it. My lack of knowledge of classical music is fairly vast, but reading these two novels made me feel I had learned a bit. At the very least, I benefitted from Mr. Elias’ obvious passion, an asset to any novel.