Friday, April 2, 2010

High Art High Crime

By Chip Schrader
Book Review Editor
“Paganini’s Ghost” is English author Paul Adam’s tenth novel that mixes history, intrigue, politics and music to make an addictive read.
Niccolo Paganini was a virtuoso violinist from nineteenth century Italy. Paganini won the affections of many women with violin compositions and skill that very few violinists to this day could master. His legend is tied in with the famed violin makers Stradivarius and Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri of Cremona, and most famously, with the devil himself.
Paganini’s talent and debaucheries had merited a legend that he sold his soul to the devil to play so well. While this is a fallacy, he had a past, and one particular lover, Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi (Napoleon’s married sister), who introduces a greater intrigue into this story.
All of this history is woven into the modern day mystery involving a missing Russian violinist, Yevgeny, whose overbearing mother stifles the creativity and youth from him. Violin maker and narrator Gianni Castiglione met the prodigy when Paganini’s famed violin “Il Cannone” had a cracked bridge, as a result, Yevgeny immediately formed a bond for the middle aged man.
After Yevgeny’s concert, what appears to be a miniature violin turns up missing from a golden box. Not long after, Yevgeny is also missing in action. Detective Antonio Guastafeste quickly contacts Castiglione to lead him through the intricate details of violin construction, unscrupulous local dealers, and the numerous biographies on Paganini, Elisa, and violin makers to unlock the clues that could break not only the case of the missing instrument, but a mystery that has loomed over the ages.
Castiglione and Guastafeste travel through Italy and head to Paris to find the ties that Paganini left to solve the case. First is the missing violin they cannot find any record of, then a piece of composition that is unknown to almost every Paganini scholar. Meanwhile, they are hounded by Yevgeny’s mother as an hour grows into days of his unknown whereabouts. Did he finally get fed up with her, or did the thief who cleaned out the safe kidnap him?
At times Adam inserts history in large chunks. Those who enjoy learning about the craftsmanship of violins, violin music, or European history will find these sidebars easy to read through. Adam hasn’t quite achieved the ability to weave the historical aspects of the story in seamlessly, but he still keeps the details interesting and pointed.
Everything down to a safe combination refers back to one of Paganini’s compositions, and former music students would marvel at Castiglione’s knowledge of transposition to crack that code. But for those who just like a good mystery that has interesting characters, this novel will suit them just as well. A well-plotted and intriguing caper that only occasionally lags in pace, this book comes highly recommended.
Photo caption: Cover of Paganini’s Ghost by Paul Adams (Courtesy photo)