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Hey Diddle Diddle, the Crime Writer and the Fiddle: 'Paganinikontrakten' by Lars Kepler

November 2, 2012 at 10:29 AM

...when writers get their violin-facts wrong in detective novels !

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I never thought I might be an extra in the scene of a thriller. Well almost, anyway. In the Epilogue of “Paganinikontrakten” (the Danish translation of the book, “Paganinikontratet” by Lars Kepler, which in English has the singularly uninspired title, “The Nightmare”), a shady deal, a “Paganini contract” is concluded at a concert by the Tokyo String Quartet in the Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen ( http://www.glyptoteket.com ), to the sounds of Schubert’s Quartet No. 14 (“Death and the Maiden”). Paganini, as we all know, sold his soul to the devil - so the myth goes - and the members of the Tokyo Quartet play on instruments once owned by Paganini. “The rest of the audience” only get a mention in passing, but I heard the Tokyo Quartet perform in the Glyptotek in December 2009 – Haydn, Berg and Dvorak, not Schubert. In any case the concert in the story has to have taken place in 2010 or later, so it’s fictional. Nevertheless I found myself trying to remember whether there were 4 men sitting separately from the rest of us at a table among the pillars – the details seemed that convincing.

The Tokyo String Quartet also features earlier in the story, at a (probably equally fictional) concert in Frankfurt. I don’t want to spoil things for anyone wanting to read the story, but a former violin prodigy with an amazing memory concludes from a photograph that the quartet is playing bar 156 of the 1st movement of Bartok’s 2nd String Quartet (Opus 17). Not having ever attempted any of Bartok’s quartets and not having checked the score I cannot say whether it is true that in that particular bar, V1 would be playing c’’’, V2 c’’, Va resting and Vc plucking a 4-part chord, (the prodigy names the notes). If so, the combination might conceivably be distinctive enough as a visual cue for someone with a good knowledge of the repertoire from personal experience to recognize the work played. Always assuming, of course, that a sneak picture taken with a mobile phone, where the quartet only represents the backdrop to the scene of another dodgy deal, were of sufficient quality to show clearly what the musicians were doing with their fingers at the moment the shutter clicked.

Actually, I found other musical references more dubious than the one to the Bartok Quartet. I mean, has anyone heard of a violinist performing the first violin part of Beethoven String Quartet No.15 at a solo competition, as one of the characters in the novel considers doing? OK, so the Johan Fredrik Berwald Competition appears to be fictional, although Johan Fredrik Berwald isn’t, but still.

This reminds me of Elizabeth George’s “A Traitor to Memory” where the violinist character supposedly performed Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio as a child prodigy. A weird choice, I thought when I read it, especially since it is not essential to the plot that the work the violinist performed should be a chamber music piece rather than a piece from the standard solo violin repertoire. And George supposedly got expert advice, if the acknowledgements are to be believed.

Even more dubious in “Paganinikontrakten” is the description of the work played by another violinist (of sorts) as “the introduction to Paganini’s most famous work, the 24 Caprices” (according to the Danish translation). What’s that supposed to mean? Aren’t the “24 Caprices” called that, because there are, well, 24 of them? It would appear from a later passage that the authors (“Lars Kepler” is actually two people) meant Caprice No. 24, so maybe this is the translator’s blunder. Even then it seems strange that a violinist who has got as far as playing this piece (however ineptly) would not know how to rectify the angle of a leaning bridge, or at least know that this is not a major repair.

It seems that even with expert advice (and I suspect that Kepler, like George, must have asked an expert in order to hit upon the right bar for the idea with the photograph), there is still plenty of scope for error when writing about violin music without first-hand knowledge.

Another author conspicuously lacking in first-hand knowledge of the subject is Günter Zorn, whose detective stories are set in Tokyo and whose “Mörderische Saiten” (Murderous/Deadly Strings) shows that he knows rather more about the Tokyo restaurant scene than about stringed instruments, although he apparently made good use of Fritz Reuter’s violin webpages (http://fritz-reuter.com/ ) to learn about the wicked doings of dodgy dealers and their accomplices. Perhaps he has also lived in Japan for too long and lost his German dictionary, which would have told him that the word he needed was “Violinkonzert” and not “Violinenkonzert.” And any relevant Japanese reference work (the Japanese have excellent reference works for practically everything) would have told him that Beethoven reportedly wrote only one violin concerto, and the people in question would there for have been listening to “das” rather than “ein” Violinkonzert.

Still, I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on the authors of these entertaining stories. After all getting violin-facts wrong in detective novels is as old as the genre itself, as evidenced by Fritz Spiegl in his hilarious piece, “Who diddled Sherlock Holmes?” (First published in Classic CD Magazine; re-published in Christopher Driver, ed., Music for Love, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1994, pp. 235-6). At least it makes us violinists feel clever even if we didn’t guess whodunnit and why.

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