Often, when we think of our greatest musicians – performers who spend countless hours practicing their instrument, and leading up to that, years perfecting their craft to attain the highest levels of virtuosic and interpretive artistry - we may assume that their lives are fully taken up by mastering their art.
So, it may come as a surprise that occasionally, a maestro ("master") can find the time and passion to dedicate her/himself to a completely different art form – and to, over the years, excel equally at that "secondary" activity. Such is the case with Boston Symphony violinist Gerald Elias.
A graduate of Yale University, Elias has been a Boston Symphony violinist, associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony since 1988, adjunct professor of music at the University of Utah, first violinist of the Abramyan String Quartet and music director of the Vivaldi Candlelight concert series.
Elias is also a master storyteller/novelist, who has published five thrillers – all combining his love of music with a fabulously crafted fiction style to create an unusual, original and gripping series of mysteries. Each is centered on a wonderfully complex central character – a blind classical performer/mentor violinist – one Daniel Jacobus.
All Elias' novels have classical music themes, as you may deduce from their clever titles: "Devil's Trill," "Danse Macabre," "Death and Transfiguration," "Death and the Maiden" and the just-published "Playing with Fire." Each is sub-titled "A Daniel Jacobus Mystery."
This last installment, "Playing With Fire," is, like its predecessors, wonderfully and imaginatively conceived, written and plotted, and is a joy to read. Elias has both a musician's ear and a writer's knack for concise conversational patter and "groaner" puns, which creates a sense of immediacy that enabled this reader to feel like he was present in each scene in the novel. The action never flags; its fast pace and crisp dialog make this tale of murder, arson, power and lost/hidden loot a real page-turner.
The story, as described by the publisher's press release is, in brief, as follows:
"When an anxious phone call from obscure violinmaker Amadeo Borlotti disturbs Daniel Jacobus' Christmas Eve festivities, he and his dear friends Nathaniel and Yumi make light of it. A seemingly humble practitioner of his craft, Borlotti preferred the quiet life in the country away from the limelight. He even found love at an advanced age. But his larceny, which began as a typographical error in a bill for a violin repair, grew incessantly. In the end he became a helpless captive of his past indiscretions and was consumed by it, and it is up to Jacobus and his team to find out how, and why."
The classical music world, as lived by Jacobus, is a busy and eventful place. Things happen. Music comes alive in the hands of brilliant performers, and old instruments (you can imagine and almost hear the dulcet tones of Jacobus' 18th century Italian violin) sing and timeless melodies float, thanks to Elias' gracefully descriptive prose. Elias' world of classical music is, via his imaginative plotting, a dangerous place - not the staid, ancient and dusty Cremona of an archetypical Old Master violinmaker. Priceless violins worth millions, documentation forgeries, and the Boston Mafia control of people all add to the mix to carry the reader along at a rapid clip.
A personal note: I love that the novel's locales are in the Berkshires region of Western Massachusetts, where Tanglewood, Stockbridge and other real and unique nearby towns are the magical, rural settings.
A logical question: Does one have to be a (classical) musician to appreciate or to "get into" the demi-monde that Elias establishes? No. The novel is written in colloquial English, and when musical terminology crops up, Elias defines and explains terms simply and clearly. However, I do believe that the more you know as either a past, practicing or serious hobbyist musician, your own backstory will immensely complement the enjoyment of discovery you'll experience as you read the book.
"Playing With Fire" is a wonderful book, and I highly recommend it. One caveat: I'd recommend "getting into" the world of Daniel Jacobus by re-tracing the author's sense of discovery by, if possible, reading all five novels in sequence, in the order listed above. I think you'll love each one, and especially will enjoy discovering how each character grows and develops en route. For more information about this, and other of the author's books, visit his website.
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