Inventive literary thriller explores suppressed history in the world of opera

‘Symphony of Secrets’ a worthy followup to critically acclaimed ‘Violin Conspiracy.’
Brendan Slocumb is author of "Symphony of Secrets."
Courtesy of David Bickley / Anchor Books

Credit: David Bickley / Anchor Books

Combined ShapeCaption
Brendan Slocumb is author of "Symphony of Secrets." Courtesy of David Bickley / Anchor Books

Credit: David Bickley / Anchor Books

Credit: David Bickley / Anchor Books

“Symphony of Secrets” is North Carolina author Brendan Slocumb’s second novel that blends an inventive combination of historical fiction, suspense and a neurodiverse perspective to spotlight a marginalized demographic in America’s musical past.

Seeking to represent the underrepresented, Slocumb uses tenderness and humanity to navigate the twisty topics of appropriation, the toppling of heroes in the Information Age and the complex reality of correcting suppressed history.

Slocumb centers his narrative around the legacy of Frederick Delaney, a fictional 20th century American composer who is considered the greatest to have lived.

Unfurling intricate details worthy of a Google search to verify if Delaney did indeed exist, Slocumb constructs a world where Delaney is famous for creating a five-part opera, the “Rings Quintet of Olympia,” inspired by the design on the Olympic flag. Each production focuses on a different continent as a runner sprints across five land masses searching for the lost torch. The success of the first four operas catapulted Delaney to worldwide celebrity and continues to influence popular culture.

Slocumb’s “Rings Quintet” draws inspiration from Richard Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung,” the 19th century cycle of four operas inspired by Norse mythology. By switching to the unifying theme of the Olympic games and expanding the scope to encompass people and music from around the world, Slocumb’s adaptation refocuses an established narrative on diversity and inclusivity with refreshing brightness.

Delaney continues to shape the present-day world in “Symphony” because everyone from McDonald’s to Allstate to Jay-Z have adapted his music to promote their brands.

But something disrupted Delaney’s brilliance, and his fifth ring, “Triumph of the Americas: The Red Ring of Olympia,” was a flop. Delaney dies shrouded in shame in the 1930s. Nevertheless, his legacy persists, thanks in part to the Delaney Foundation, which serves as a Getty-styled philanthropic organization governed by the composer’s descendants. Funded by royalties, the foundation seeks to enrich lives and promote culture.

When the foundation discovers a hidden version of the “Red Ring” believed to be the lost original, it enlists Bern Hendricks — a graduate of the foundation’s scholarship program and the foremost expert in “Delaney doodles,” the unique language Delaney used to write his masterpiece — to decipher and produce the final opera.

With a six-month curtain call, Hendricks sets up shop in the foundation’s archive and enlists the help of his computer-genius friend, Eboni Washington.

Slocumb’s plot unfurls with the same density as his world-building. Hendricks and Washington form a compelling duo as they follow a trail of clues to discover Delaney was a complex man. Washington’s razor-sharp intellect, along with her cunning blend of common sense and chutzpah, propel the modern-day narrative forward.

The foundation becomes evasive when Hendricks asks to examine the original document, and it refuses to disclose where it was discovered, turning Washington’s suspicions to an unnamed Black woman who has gone previously unnoticed in the background of Delaney’s photographs. Could Delaney have fathered her child and concealed his rightful heir?

Hendricks admires Delaney for his stance on racial inclusion and, most notably, for refusing to allow his “Rings Quintet” to be performed at the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi-controlled Berlin. Unlike Wagner, Delaney is celebrated for landing on the right side of history. Hendricks is also loyal to the foundation for the opportunities it’s given him. He does not want to uncover Delaney was a fraud.

Washington serves not only to provide comic relief but to give voice to the person whose exterior doesn’t blend in with the established mold — and is proud of it. She celebrates her appearance, wearing her hair in braids “swept up in an elaborate style that framed her face” and remains true to her convictions, demanding respect when the director of the foundation makes a comment steeped in passive-aggressive racism.

The plot tightens when they discover Delaney’s mystery woman has a name, Josephine Reed, and uncovering her role in Delaney’s life could change the shape of history in ways the foundation isn’t willing to explore. Compulsively readable, there’s an accessibility to the prose that puts the focus on the story’s forward momentum. But it’s Slocumb’s exploration of its themes that gives the novel gravitas and elevates the narrative above a musical version of “The Da Vinci Code.”

Shifting to 1918 in part two of the narrative, Slocumb alternates between Reed and Delaney to reveal the story of their relationship and her influence on his music. Slocumb’s recreation of the creative grapple inherent in 20th century songwriting, and the exploitation of marginalized artists by unscrupulous producers, is detailed and passionate and full of verve.

The narrative sings when Reed takes the stage. Slocumb’s depiction of a neurodiverse woman who experiences sound through color, texture and mood is mesmerizing. For Reed, a knife cutting through ham produces “a sizzle that felt almost umber”; the proper piano posture is achieved by sitting with the attentiveness of “a white torrent.” As her story unfurls and it becomes easier for the reader to experience sounds as Reed describes them, Slocumb’s passion for music is abundantly conveyed.

As with his 2022 debut “The Violin Conspiracy,” heralded by the New York Times as “a musical bildungsroman cleverly contained within a literary thriller,” Brendan Slocumb’s “Symphony of Secrets” is a tale about an underrepresented American demographic wrapped around an inventive and heartfelt examination of music history.


“Symphony of Secrets”

by Brendan Slocumb

Anchor Books

448 pages, $28

About the Author