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JAN 5, 2011


Cremona, Italy. On the eve of an important performance, local luthier Gianni Castiglione is called on to examine Il Cannone, the violin once played by Niccolò Paganini, which would be played that night by competition winner Yevgeny Ivanov. A minor adjustment is made and at the recital both violin and musician perform flawlessly. The next day, however, a concert attendee, a French art dealer, is found dead in his Cremona hotel. Two items are noted among his possessions: a locked golden box and a torn corner of a music score from the night’s previous performance. Gianni’s police detective friend, Antonio Guastafeste, enlists his help and the two soon find themselves on an international chase, on the trail of not just a murderer but of a priceless historical treasure, one worth killing for.

Gianni, appearing in author Paul Adam’s well-received The Rainaldi Quartet (2007), is a warmly sympathetic character and a compelling, often philosophical narrator. All the characters are well developed, giving the story a depth and sense of humanity not always found in mysteries and thrillers. Classical music lore and historical detail spring to life, as do descriptions of Paris, London and the Italian countryside. A side plot in which Gianni befriends Yevgeny Ivanov is charming and effective and deepens the mystery—might Yevgeny or his overbearing stage mother be involved in the nefarious goings-on? The story offers the reader insight into the life of a young career musician, the grind of it, the competitions, the grueling performance schedule. As well, a romantic angle to the story helps flesh it out—Gianni’s developing relationship with Margherita Severini, his musings over his first wife who died several years earlier, both of which are presented with a warm, realistic touch.

Paganini’s Ghost is sure to appeal to the music history reader who normally doesn’t “do” mysteries, as well as providing a palatable dose of history to readers who tend to gloss over “those boring details” to get to the action. Adam has a great eye for detail, is economical with his words, uses humor sparingly, which makes it all the more entertaining and delightful when it does appear. Some passages are worth reading and rereading for their subtle artistry, such as the following, which I found myself reading aloud to anyone who would listen:

“He was a short, goatlike man with crooked, slightly buck teeth, a shock of untidy grey hair, and a covering of pale fluff on his chin that was too insubstantial to warrant the term beard. He gave the impression of good-natured affability, until you looked into his eyes. His eyes were cold and cloudy, like chips of frosted glass.”

No, this is not searing, literary fiction that will forever haunt you. It is not high stakes, high-octane thriller writing. It’s better: an engrossing, intelligent, satisfying page-turner I’d recommend to almost anyone, and a “you’ve got to read this” to music history or classical music fans. A great follow-up to The Rainaldi Quartet. This is book two in the series; here’s hoping we will see much more of Gianni and Guastafeste.

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