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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Paganini's Ghost, by Paul Adam (hardcover, $24.99)

Bravo! Paul Adam has created an enlightening, delightful story around a contemporary violin maker in Italy. Paganini's Ghost is part musical arcana made accessible by the author's engaging writing style and part intelligent mystery.

Gianni Castiglione is a premier violin maker. He is a man who enjoys life in an isolated home and workshop set just outside of Cremona, Italy. The story begins when a cavalcade of official vehicles pulls up in front of Gianni's home. They bear Il Cannone ("The Cannon"), the powerful-sounding violin created by Guarneri in 1743 and played by fabled violinist Niccolò Paganini in the early 1800s (fact). Among the violin's entourage is the young man who is scheduled to play the violin that evening (fiction). They have come to Gianni because of an annoying buzzing sound that has developed when the violin is played.

In the process of repairing the violin, Gianni befriends the shy young player, Yevgeny Ivanov. Although he was once a child prodigy and is now a young man with a bright future, Yevgeny's life is not all champagne and caviar. His dominating mother has taken over both his musical and his personal lives. After a shady art dealer from Paris is murdered and a piece of paper torn from Yevgeny's music sheet is found on him, Gianni and his police friend, Antonio Guastafeste, seek to determine Yevgeny's involvement. When Yevgeny disappears and a small golden violin case is discovered among the murdered man's possessions, the case becomes increasingly complicated. Gianni and Guastafeste must find Yevgeny, the golden violin that belongs in the case, and an elusive missing Paganini serenade. Their search takes them around Italy and to Paris and London.

British author Adam often stops to savor the Italian life in the process of telling his story. Gianni simmers sauces and slices savory cheeses in his little kitchen. Guastafeste concocts deadly little cocktails and Gianni pops the cork on delicious red wines. Guastafeste tears down the roads in his car, unmindful of the posted speed limit; Gianni rides with his eyes closed and his fists clenched. And everywhere there is the magnificent centuries-old architecture. Oh, yeah, it's Italy, all right!

More's the pity that there's no accompanying CD of the music described in the book, but Adam writes with verve of the pleasure of playing or listening to it. In The Rainaldi Quartet, Adam's first Gianni Castiglione book, a member of Gianni and Guastafeste's amateur quartet is murdered. Paganini's Ghost takes place a year later, and the remaining members of the quartet have not played together since their friend's death. As a thank you for repairing The Cannon, Yevgeny fills the vacant spot and heals the sorrow of the remaining quartet members. I would love to have been there. Oh, wait, it's fiction. Rats!

The central mystery involving the tiny violin and the missing music is rich with real historical references, but the heart of the book lies in the heart of the main characters. Goodness abounds and there is no doubt that simple-minded, avaricious Evil will be vanquished by the finale.

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