Mean Mr. Mustard

Devil’s Trill: A Novel by Gerald Elias (Minotaur Books, $14.99, 304 pages)

“…musicians far greater than myself have overcome far greater obstacles in life than losing ridiculous little competitions.”

I’m generally not a huge fan of mysteries but this was one that I could not manage to put down.   Devil’s Trill centers around Daniel Jacobus (who likes to be called Jacobus, never Daniel), who was once a gifted musical child prodigy.   As a thirteen-year-old, Jacobus took second place – the same as coming in last – at the prestigious Grimsely Competition at Carnegie Hall.   He’s always had a grudge about what happened to him at the Grimsely – a unique competition held at 13-year intervals – and he subsequently lost his eyesight due to an infection.   Despite this, Jacobus managed to have a fair to middling career as a classical musician, who could literally play blind, without the need for scores.   In the last few decades, he’s made a living as a musical instructor for young musicians – some of whom, in a sense, he grooms to win the prizes and successful careers that escaped his own grasp.

As we meet Jacobus, he elects to be present – along with his latest student, Yumi Shinagawa of Japan – at the latest edition of the Grimsely, where the winning competitor is granted the honor of performing with a priceless Stradivarius violin.   All is fine except that once the special evening is concluded, its determined that the $8,000,000 Stradivarius has disappeared from the reception held at Carnegie Hall.   There are many suspects, but Jacobus soon comes to realize that the New York City police suspect him most of all.   (Jacobus has often publicly expressed his opinion that the Grimsely uses child prodigies unfairly, and he comes to find that all of its winners ultimately fell short of the brilliant careers they were once promised.)

Since the rare violin was under the protection of two armed guards before it was stolen, it’s clear that whoever took it was a person with a deep knowledge of the classical music business.   Forced to clear his name, Jacobus will join with the intelligent and precocious Yumi and a music-worshipping insurance agent to attempt to solve the crime before the police do.   The effort may require Jacobus to leave the country, cementing the perception that he’s a guilty man.

“Unaccustomed to the idea of happiness…  Jacobus was at a loss how to proceed.”

“Jacobus did not suffer zealots gladly…”

What makes this read especially enjoyable is the character of our protagonist, Jacobus.   He’s brilliant but a self-proclaimed grouchy old man:  “…now we’re all just old farts.”   He may remind some readers of the main character-physician in the current TV series, House.   Jacobus lives by his instincts, but he attempts to rule sighted people by intimidation (only his extremely high I.Q. lets him get away with it the majority of the time.)

Having a basic knowledge of classical music will assist the reader but is not required.   Elias, who is a violinist, concertmaster and professor of music, supplies all of the necessary background on the composers mentioned in the story, such as Jacobus’ idol Ludwig von Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Mendelssohn, and the other great Masters.   Reading Devil’s Trill is like sitting in the audience as a great orchestra plays Beethoven’s classic Fifth Symphony.   Highly recommended.

This reader looks forward to picking up the next novel in the Daniel Jacobus series, Danse Macabre.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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