THE DEVIL’S TRILL is a mystery concerning the disappearance of a Stradivarius violin played every thirteen years by a the winner of the Grimsley Competition. Gerald Elias peoples his story with dark, greedy, nasty characters, the chief of whom is Daniel Jacobus, the “hero” of the story.
Daniel Jacobus was a child prodigy, a losing contestant in the Grimsley Competition, the winner of which gets to play the only 3/4 size Stradivarius known to have been made. It is considered perfect in form and in sound. Jacobus is a man dogged by a dark cloud; he wins the coveted role of concertmaster with the Boston Symphony Orchestra but loses it with the sudden onset of blindness. Angry, misanthropic, brilliant, and possessed of a vile temper, Jacobus does his best to infuriate and insult everyone with whom he comes in contact. He withdraws to a house in the Berkshires where he earns his living by teaching the violin to students who are nearly as good as he was and he spends every moment trying to get them to hate him so much they quit.
THE DEVIL’S TRILL is set in 1983. Despite himself,Jacobus is drawn to the Carnegie Hall concert of the newest winner of the competition. True to himself, Daniel shows up at the reception after the concert wearing the usual flannel shirt, worn and none too clean, “Jake” mixes with the classical aristocracy, dressed to annoy. The one thing he hates more than the Grimsley Competition is the child-centered Musical Arts Program Group which sucks the life and the talent out of the children they agree to represent in the artificial and demeaning world of perfomance art. Jake is not shy about making his opinions known and he repeats his often stated view that the Piccolino should be destroyed to end the competition. When the violin is stolen in the middle of the reception, Jake becomes the prime suspect.
Jake, his newest student, Yumi Shinagawa, and his one, true friend, Nathanial Williams begin an investigation to find the violin and clear Jake’s name. The search takes them to Japan and to the Grimsley Competition of 1931 and to a satisfying conclusion that reveals the soul-destroying depths of failure.
Some people who read THE DEVIL’S TRILL might be put off by the character of Daniel Jacobus to the point that they do not like the book. Jacobus is unpleasant, has questionable hygiene, and isn’t above using his lack of vision to get what he wants. Jacobus is why the book is so good. He hates the manipulation of the child prodigies who make money for record labels, concert venues, and managers and who often lose the gift that brought them so much attention because they are rushed to perform in a manner that their bodies are not yet able to manage. He hates the Piccolino Stradivarius because it is the competition to play the “perfect” instrument that pushes the children, and their parents, into the Grimsley Competition. Jacobus was one of those children and none who competed or won went on the fulfill the promise of their musical genius. A nice-guy hero couldn’t be nearly so ruthless.
I hope that Gerald Elias brings Daniel Jacobus back for further investigations. Jacobus grows on the reader slowly but steadily.