All Thumbs Down

Jonathan Bellman

The Chopin Manuscript, marketed as “The Thriller Event of the Year,” is a multi-author mystery available on audible.com. The conceit, which apparently makes it “the literary event of the year,” is that the main author, Jeffery Deaver, wrote a chapter, then passed it off to another mystery author, who did the same, and so forth, until Deaver gets it back and writes the last two, chapters 16 and 17. Each author got full control, and if (for example) a character is killed off, that’s it. Any plot twists that transpire stay, and are part of the inheritance of future authors. Another aspect to this is that it was released two chapters per week, serial fashion, so those of us who subscribed had to swallow the suspense for a week until the next installments. It’s a dream team of thriller authors, according to the, ah, publisher’s publicity—Lisa Scottolini, Lee Child, Peter Spiegelman etc.
So the literary event of the year is, apparently, the mystery equivalent of the Yellow River Concerto, the famous high-Romantic and utterly forgettable concerto written by committee in Communist China.
It’s a murder mystery: there’s Eastern Europe, there’s America, there are personal angles etc. The central item is, unsurprisingly, a Chopin manuscript smuggled out of Europe—is it an unknown work? A forgery? etc. etc. I’m not going to give anything away, for those who like murder mysteries. I’ll also say that almost all the musical discussion is in the first, and primarily the last two chapters, thus all by the main author.
And here’s the question. How is it that mystery authors can know the ins and outs (seemingly; to be fair, I certainly wouldn’t know the difference) of firearm operation, surveillance technology, political operations of several different countries, law enforcement protocols, military history, paramilitary history and so much more…and the musical knowledge is so godawful? Sentimental glop for the descriptions of music-making (and its inspirations), really unpersuasive discussions of the music manuscripts, and a couple of blunders relating to the composers in question that, in the mind of any musician who happens to be listening, falls to the ground with a loud clank. At least one such problem was the doing of one of the subsequent authors, which had to be papered over at the last minute, but still. Do these people not actually do any research? Take Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon books; isn’t the art history stuff for the art restorer/Shin Bet operative pretty good? I mean, it’s been about ten books’ worth, I think. So if they’re going to write about classical music, are we wrong to expect them to have done a bit of background work so the entire thing doesn’t suddenly get embarrassingly implausible whenever music is discussed?
This is not a case of, “just loosen up, Jon…relax, let it go” as I do hear from time to time, including from administrative superiors. This is bad. In The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, at least for me, Umberto Eco’s broad learning really accounted for the plausibility; he clearly did his homework (or, equally possibly, he simply Knows Everything Already). In any case, much of the joy of those yarns lay in the thick-context layering. It’s like eating a wonderfully rich, nourishing, and satisfying meal.
The Chopin Manuscript is the very opposite: formulaic, undistinguished, and weakest in the area in which its supposed uniqueness is based. All thumbs down!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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2 Responses to All Thumbs Down

  1. Micaëla says:

    Ha, should the academic job market not work out my semi-joke plan is to write cheesy but musically accurate historical fiction. First subject: Pierre Alamire.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I think two chapters at the very least of that book should be devoted to how he signed his name, hexachord notation, the Guidonian hand, etc. Then, you could fill it out with less boffo page-turner stuff.

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