I think I’ll never look at a Thursday the same way again. Not after reading Death and Transfiguration by Gerald Elias. The story begins on a Thursday, when Daniel Jacobus, retired violin virtuoso and sometime sleuth, receives a visit from an up and comer at a world-famous touring orchestra. She’s being tormented by her Maestro and asks for his help, but he largely dismisses the young woman’s complaints. The legendary Vaclav Herza, one of the last great conductors from the bygone era of classical music, is hardly the first brilliant Maestro to behave like a tyrant. Musicians usually put up or shut up. After listening to her play a nearly perfect score, and offering scant advice about her troubles with the Maestro, Jacobus sends her on her way.
But it’s Thursday and no good news ever comes on a Thursday; at least where Daniel Jacobus is concerned. And Jacobus, despite his best efforts, can’t seem to get the girl and her story out of his head, or out of his life. When the young woman in question ends up fighting for her life after an apparent suicide attempt, Jacobus throws himself into an investigation of Vaclav Herza’s tawdry secrets and cruel nature. It is an investigation that may well cost him his life.
The fussy and self-satisfied world of classical music is one not many readers know much about and it’s delicious to dig in and explore the complex nature of such a small, elite society. Elias takes us hand in hand through the kind of vicious back-biting that becomes commonplace in a landscape where people of enormous talent and skill fight – sometimes to the death – for a meager handful of positions. To top it off, it’s a world that has been losing cultural and commercial ground for decades, so the stakes cut to the very core of every player. It’s not just about money and power or even love, the usual culprits in the majority of mysteries, but about the struggle for preserving excellence, tradition, innovation and commitment in a fast-changing, fast-food world.
As a protagonist, Daniel Jacobus is counter-intuitive. Not only is he aged and blind – proving once again that old age and treachery can trounce youth and skill on any given day – but he’s cranky, fastidious, self-centered and a snob. He’s also brilliant, gloriously difficult and the kind of friend you want when you’re in trouble – even if he doesn’t play well at a dinner party anymore.
Jacobus’ blindness, rather than limiting his efforts open him and the reader up to a whole new way of solving a crime. As a musician, and a superb one at that, he can derive more from what he hears than most of us can using all of our senses combined. It makes for wonderful suspense and an edge of your seat anticipation of events you as a reader are powerless to predict.
So, it’s apt that Death and Transfiguration begins on a Thursday – the least predictable day of the week. The day that sits on the precipice of a wonderful weekend filled with conviviality, adventure, and even romance or a lonely block of time you just want to get through. And it can all hinge on a phone call or a visit or even a good book.
About the Reviewer
Victoria Dougherty has for nearly 20 years distinguished herself as a writer and master storyteller. She has written, translated, and produced television news segments, theatrical plays and video scripts. She has ghost-written articles, speeches and testimony for Fortune 500 executives. Her journalism and essays have been published in the Chicago Tribune, the Prague Post, and the Sunday edition of the New York Times. She is also the author of a novel, The Hungarian.