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It’s a Mystery: “A violin is always female”

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Paganini’s Ghost

By Paul Adam
Minotaur Books, 2010

The opening scene of this gem of a novel unfolds like a vintage noir movie. A convoy arrives at Giovanni Battista Castiglione’s unassuming dwelling. Castiglione, who modestly introduces himself as a “violin maker and repairer,” is, in fact, “the best luthier in Cremona.” Hence the procession of vehicles.

There were six vehicles in the convoy. I had been telephoned half an hour earlier to be given advance warning of its arrival, so that I was waiting outside my house when the procession appeared on the horizon, speeding towards me along the road from Cremona. At the front was a blue-and-white police patrol car with its roof light flashing, but its siren mercifully silent…. Behind the patrol car was a shiny dark blue Alfa Romeo with tinted windows, followed by a black armoured van like the ones banks use for delivering cash to their branches. Fourth in the line was a red Fiat Bravo, then a silver Mercedes saloon. Bringing up the rear was a second marked police car…. I had never seen anything like it.

The first police car skidded to a halt just past the entrance to the front of my house…. Two scruffy uniformed officers climbed out, both sporting the mirror sunglasses, stubble and institutional truculence that seem to be de rigueur in the Polizia Nazionale….the Alfa Romeo and the armoured van stopped beside me.

Two men got out of the Alfa Romeo…. Their smart black suits, white shirts, and highly polished black shoes were identical. Even their ties were the same…they were wearing mirror sunglasses like the police officers, but a class apart in every other respect—sleek, well-fed leopards to the policemen’s mangy alley cats…heads constantly moving, eyes searching…walkie-talkies clutched in their hands, they looked like bodyguards you always see accompanying heads of state…only the body they were guarding was made of maple and pine, rather than flesh and blood. Inside the armoured van—looking very small and insignificant—was a rather shabby rectangular violin case.

Everything about the occasion—the policeman, the bodyguards, the armoured van—seemed so over the top that I was almost inclined to laugh. But the precautions were understandable, for this was no ordinary violin…this was a Guarneri “del Gesù”—the most valuable, famous Guarneri del Gesù on earth. This was il Cannone—the Cannon—the violin that had belonged to Nicolò Paganini.

And thereby hangs a tale. The violin has developed a slight buzz—audible only to the ears of the prodigy, a rising young Russian, Yevgeny Ivanov, who is to play it at a world-famous, heavily promoted recital in the Cremona cathedral in a few hours. Castiglione’s not inconsiderable skills are required. Banishing all but Ivanov from his workshop (including the prodigy’s formidable diva of a mama, Ludmilla), Castiglione approaches the “patient” with all the delicacy that accompanies a royal birth. He saves the day and night. Ivanov makes the violin “sing like an angel” in the beautiful old basilica, and all’s well that ends well. Alas, not quite. Things, as we all know, are seldom what they seem.

The morning after the recital, Francois Villeneuve, a visiting Parisian art dealer with a somewhat unsavory reputation, is found murdered in his hotel room. Villeneuve was last seen at the post-concert reception in the company of Milanese violin dealer, Vincenzo Serafin. In the victim’s possession: an ornate gold box, obviously the work of a master craftsman, with an engraving of Moses on Mount Sinai on the lid. Even more curious, the unique combination lock uses letters instead of numbers. And in the man’s wallet, a scrap of paper torn from the Paganini piece, the “Moses Fantasy,” played by Ivanov.

Paul Adam

Gianni Castiglione is called into the case by his friend, police detective Antonio Guastafeste. He knows that Gianni’s musical expertise, knowledge of genealogy and provenance, so vital in the hunt for long missing treasures, is invaluable. (The pair were introduced in Adam’s The Rainaldi Quartet.) Plus, Castiglione has a “close” love/hate business relationship with Serafin. As he puts it, “Serafin has friends in low places.” And Serafin, when pressed, does, a very unconvincing act of distancing himself from Villeneuve.

The more pressing question is what’s in the gold box? Castiglione tries his hand at the combination, without success. Frustrating, because Guastafeste’s policemen’s nose tells him: “There’s something inside it; I’m sure of it. And whatever it is, it’s important.” He’s got that right. They will soon discover they are on to something that could knock the curious world of classical musicians on its heels.

And now, a literary digression whose core is page 69. Yes, 69. Bear with me. Canadian academic Marshall McLuhan suggested that you should choose your reading by turning to page 69 of a book, and, if you like it, read it. (Minor aside: I seriously doubt that McLuhan was being mischievous when he chose that number.) Captivated by McLuhan’s theory, Marshall Zeringue, whose blogging enterprises are clustered at The Campaign for the American Reader, started a daily feature called “the page 69 test,” in which he asks an author to quote and briefly discuss whatever text can be found on page 69 of his or her book, if it is a key component of the plot. Put more complexly, if it is a concise microcosm of the novel’s narrative and thematic elements. As the blog reveals, many an author who thought this idea pure hokum has been converted. Trust me, this can wreak havoc with your time if you start going to your bookshelves.

At any rate, this takes me back to Paganini’s Ghost and page 68, which ends with Guastafeste’s emphatic pronouncement that the contents of the gold box are “important.” And on to what the author Paul Adam wrote after he applied the “page 69 test”:

Page 69 is something of a lull in the storm of activity that precedes, and follows, it. It’s something I believe every good thriller needs—a break from the action which can get too relentless, and a chance too for the reader to get to know, and understand, the leading characters better. The opening to chapter six, the page is a moment of quiet reflection when Gianni Castiglione takes a break from detection to return to his violin making and muse on his long career as a luthier.

And it is, of course, during this period of reflection, while playing Paganini’s “Moses Fantasy” for himself, that he figures out how to crack the code of the gold box:

“We were trying out the wrong notes,” I said to Guastafeste.

He’d driven out from Cremona and was sitting at my kitchen table with a glass of red wine in his hand. He’d brought the gold box with him, which must have breached at least a half a dozen official regulations. But he seemed to have a clear conscience. The Italian police are sticklers for rules only when not applied to themselves.

“The wrong notes?” he said.

Castiglione launches into an erudite musical explanation involving the notes of the “Moses Fantasy” and its connection to the combination of the lock which, per miracolo, opens the box.

Unfortunately, it’s empty save for a very old piece of paper that appears to be a letter. What is clear from the outline in the lining is that the box once housed a miniature violin. The letter divulges that the box was a gift to Paganini from Elisa Baciocchi, nee Bonaparte, the princess of Piombino and Lucca, Napoleon’s sister, and Paganini’s lover. Paganini, one of the most complex, charismatic, celebrated—some would say notorious—virtuosos in history, moved in very high circles.

It’s a lead that takes Castiglione and Guastafeste on a cross-continental search of the lushly carpeted, inner sanctums of the world’s leading jewelers and auction houses. As they travel around Europe, they find themselves following a trail that links back through time to Catherine the Great, to unravel a mystery that has remained unsolved for over two hundred years. And perhaps, put to rest the soul of a ghost.

Paganini’s Ghost is classy, low key suspense. It is filled with charming, anecdotal revelations about the 19th century music world, including a delectable portrait of the secret and scandalous world of orchestras like La Scala’s. It’s a puzzle with perfect pitch, that combines Italian ambience with exquisite pacing, meticulous plotting, and a masterful climax worthy of Paganini.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.