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Symphony of Secrets


Symphony of Secrets

Brendan Slocumb, who wrote the book club favorite THE VIOLIN CONSPIRACY, returns with another love letter to music wrapped around a compelling mystery that echoes through generations in SYMPHONY OF SECRETS.

Like most days that change your life forever, the day that music professor Bern Hendricks receives an email from the lauded Delaney Foundation is like any other, right down to his wrinkled shirt and being five minutes late to his own class. “I’m reaching out with a time-sensitive matter regarding Frederick Delaney,” writes Mallory Delaney Roberts, the great-niece of the most famous American composer of all time and Bern’s personal hero. “Please call the number below, no matter the hour, from a location where you can speak freely. Someone will always be monitoring this line.”

"I think the best description of Slocumb’s work would have to call upon the very music he writes about in his books. Sweeping, harmonic, and as kaleidoscopic and thrilling as, well, a symphony, SYMPHONY OF SECRETS is an unputdownable masterpiece."

As one of the world’s foremost experts on the celebrated composer, Bern is not only familiar with the Delaney Foundation, he was one of their success stories when he received a French horn from them as a child and became enamored of classical music. A scholar of Frederick Delaney in particular, Bern suspects that he will be asked to authenticate some documentation. But nothing can prepare him for what Mallory reveals.

In 1920, the five-ringed Olympic flag debuted. Over the next 16 years, Delaney composed the Five Rings of Olympia, an ode to the rebirth of hope that accompanied the return of the global competition. Named after each of the five colors, the resulting works launched Delaney and opera into new realms of fame; never before had opera been so accessible, so exuberant, so popular with the masses. But when the time came to debut the final opera, Triumph of the Americas: The Red Ring of Olympia, Delaney announced that he had lost the only full copy of it. Rumors dominated the media as people accused Delaney of lying or being burned out or drugged up.

Ten years later, Delaney had finally rewritten RED from memory, only to see it viciously torn to shreds by critics who accused him of lazy repetition and hackneyed tunes. He died by suicide that night. Now Mallory claims that the Foundation has found the original RED, a work that not only could change how Delaney is studied, played and immortalized, but could launch Bern into worldwide acclaim as well. All he has to do is get RED performance-ready and create a brand-new score based on the manuscript. In six months.

Like any fan, Bern is bowled over by the request, but mostly by the opportunity to hold something so close to his idol. He quickly calls in his tech-savvy former acquaintance, Eboni, to help him survey and analyze the written work, which is riddled with Delaney’s famous handwritten marks and doodles. Like Bern, Eboni is a scholar of Delaney’s works. On top of that, she is an expert in spatial intelligence. This means she can detect and identify patterns, a skill that will come in handy when wading through hundreds of pages of doodles.

Right from the start, one doodle stands out: JaR. Delaney was eccentric, sure, but he was consistent. It isn’t until Bern and Eboni are granted access to the original rather than the photocopy that they can start to piece together that mysterious word, which they come to find out is actually JoR. It stands for Josephine Reed, a poor Black woman who worked as a servant at Delaney’s workplace. So why is her name there, and why do Bern and Eboni find her in almost every picture of Delaney taken at the height of his fame?

Alternating between 1920s Manhattan and the present day as Bern and Eboni launch their investigation into Delaney’s ties to Josephine, Slocumb weaves a generations-long mystery that reveals Josephine as a musical prodigy, an odd but bright young woman who taught Delaney not just how to play music but how to feel it, using vivid imagery to guide him: “The green with the star came in two beats after it should have.” “If you blur the white you’ll be late…. Don’t fight the falling knobs.” It soon becomes clear to Bern and Eboni that Delaney was not the genius they believed. He, like so many white musicians and composers, may have profited off the works and talents of a Black person --- worse yet, a Black woman.

Though their discovery is shocking and history-making, their work is being funded and even controlled by the one organization dead set on preserving Delaney’s legacy. Bern and Eboni have placed themselves in dangerous crosshairs. Weaving themes of legacy, cultural appropriation and the whitewashing of history, Slocumb ties these two plotlines together seamlessly, revealing a mystery that compels and educates.

Like many readers, I devoured THE VIOLIN CONSPIRACY, and I still recommend it to friends today. But the Slocumb behind this book is even more assured, stylish and clever, and it thrusts him into a whole new stratosphere of writership. His mystery is riveting, his love of music is palpable, and his crystalline dialogue sings. The character work he engages here is authentic and raw, with individuals from both storylines seeming as real as you or me.

Though it may sound trite, I think the best description of Slocumb’s work would have to call upon the very music he writes about in his books. Sweeping, harmonic, and as kaleidoscopic and thrilling as, well, a symphony, SYMPHONY OF SECRETS is an unputdownable masterpiece.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on April 21, 2023

Symphony of Secrets
by Brendan Slocumb

  • Publication Date: January 23, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0593315456
  • ISBN-13: ‎9780593315453