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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Beethoven's Assassins

Andrew Crumey

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To purchase Beethoven's Assassins

Title: Beethoven's Assassins
Author: Andrew Crumey
Genre: Novel
Written: 2023
Length: 511 pages
Availability: Beethoven's Assassins - UK
Beethoven's Assassins - Canada
directly from: Dedalus Books

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Our Assessment:

B : wide-ranging, in every respect, for better and worse

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 9/6/2023 John Self
Literary Review . 7/2023 Paul Griffiths
The Scotsman . 1/6/2023 Joyce McMillan
The Spectator . 1/7/2023 Stuart Kelly

  From the Reviews:
  • "Yet all of this barely touches on the motifs in Beethoven’s Assassins -- things that keep disappearing, people who keep disappearing -- which tease us into connecting the parts even as we’re distracted by the sparky dialogue and comic brio. (...) But Crumey seems less interested in bringing things to a clear conclusion here than he was in earlier novels, and when another new narrator appeared on page 456, I felt like Philip Larkin: “Too much confectionery, too rich”. Still, over-reach is better than the reverse, and when Sullivan describes “a book on ‘everything’ masquerading as a novel”, you can see where Crumey found his model. Beethoven’s Assassins is impeccably ambitious, reliably entertaining and a little over the top. It’s what happens when everything is allowed." - John Self, Financial Times

  • "The overall effect is like a brilliantly well-informed 200-year history of philosophy, science, music and mysticism, touched with an edge of Da Vinci Code hocus pocus, in the sense of an alternative “sub rosa” world history never quite revealed. To say so, though, is to miss the sheer fun and narrative energy of Crumey’s writing, the skill and insight with which he conjures up each of his narrators from the repellent to the poignant, and the huge ingenuity with which he interweaves their stories (.....) There’s something profoundly post-modern about the dense cultural references, and the complex patchwork of fact and fiction, that make up Crumey’s narrative; and in that sense it continues in a vein he has been mining for the last 25 years and more." - Joyce McMillan, The Scotsman

  • "The book is seeded with recurring images which serve its theme. Is the perfect conspiracy so well-constructed it isn’t even recognised ? (...) It’s great cerebral fun, with its quantum physics, telepathy, time travel and fraying of fact and fiction. But all this is its own misdirection. (...) It is a pity that his work is not more widely recognised as the achievement it is." - Stuart Kelly, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The 'Assassins' of the title of Andrew Crumey's novel is a bit of a tease -- both regarding the possibility of real-life killers of the great composer (though only a few pages into the story sister-in-law Therese admits that: "As some would have it, I'm the one who killed him") to the opera, The Assassins, or Everything is Allowed, which Beethoven hoped to write but never did (or did he ...?). The opera and its possible existence do figure prominently in the story, but Beethoven's Assassins ranges far beyond it, over multiple narrators and perspectives, as well some two centuries in time. (As to the 'killing' of Beethoven himself, varieties of that are also addressed -- from the physical to the reputational (the latter of course not very successful), but it's also more patter in the background.)
       Fairly long chapters focus on a variety of characters from Beethoven's time to our own, with some accounts in the first person and others in the third -- with one narrator, philosopher Robert Coyle, philosophically changing his approach late in the novel ("Why didn't he think of it before ? So much easier since Robert decided to use the third person"). The novel is polyphonic; symphonic in scope; and with a good bit of the operatic to its stories. Beethoven is one connecting thread; another is Axtoun House, housing the Hyle Centre in the present-day -- "a place for 'artists, scientists and intellectuals' as well as 'social activists, policy makers, innovators'" -- but first visited in 1823, when it is a Colonel Wilson's home and Marion arrives, for her first professional posting, as a teacher for the young boy of the house, Thomas (despite the fact that nothing is expected from the poor child, who is very peculiarly (mis)treated). And among the novel's other locales is Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.
       Philosopher Robert is one of the main figures. With the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth to be celebrated in 2020, Robert is invited to contribute to an anthology, asked to write on the subject of Beethoven and philosophy. Like many of the other projects mentioned in the novel, the anthology doesn't come into being, but before it is cancelled, Robert does devote considerable time to musing about what he could write connecting Beethoven and philosophy -- leading him, among other things, to the work of Beethoven-biographer (among much else) J.W.N.Sullivan -- who had been at Axtoun House in 1923, confronted with and exploring a possible psychic connection to Beethoven. Much of Robert's accounts are also devoted to his navigating the coronavirus-lockdown times, when he gives his lectures via internet and worries about his parents, as their physical and mental conditions break down faster than he was prepared for and he has to deal with these difficult personal issues.
       There's also writer Adam Crouch, invited on short notice to do a writing residency at the Hyde Centre -- a last-minute replacement for Robert Coyle who, we soon learn, had died on site. (In a novel full of echoes and and the like across the centuries, he's not the first replacement: centuries earlier, Marion's predecessor as teacher to Thomas had also died when she was there.) Adam sees the invitation as a chance to: "finally get down to a novel. Though he wondered which he'd choose, out of all the ones he'd planned over the years".
       There are all kinds of overlap of connections, as, for example, Therese's account comes not directly from her but rather is channeled by Martha, a patient at Axtoun House in the 1920s, while Sullivan's work is read by the contemporary characters. What Robert notes at one point applies to the novel itself as well:

I'd been losing myself in a chain of literary connections whose diagram might resemble the tangle of charging cables on Dad's coffee table.
       Beside her role as teacher, Marion is called to take dictation from Colonel Wilson -- revealing his obsession with a far-reaching conspiracy, a sinister alliance and 'the Fold' that was created to resist it. If others have their doubts about the Colonel's wild ideas, nevertheless, as Marion is told: "Truth in this house is whatever the master decides".
       With a hidden library, invisible ink, and a USB stick that goes missing, as well as psychic connections and secret societies and Beethoven's opera there are many thriller-type elements here, but Beethoven's Assassins is also steeped in the history and theory -- musical, literary, and biographical (especially regarding Beethoven, of course, but also, for example featuring Katherine Mansfield). Death -- and the aftereffects on the living -- figure prominently, too, from Beethoven's to Robert's parents' (and, of course, his own).
       The broad sweep and multiple storylines make for a very far-reaching novel, engaging along its different paths and with sufficient crossover connections to make for an intriguing whole as well. Beethoven's Assassins remains a bit diffuse however, not committed enough to a sufficiently strong main and guiding thread or theme. The alternate title to Beethoven's opera is Everything is Allowed and Crumey has no qualms about taking a similar approach in his novel, for better and worse; it makes for an enjoyable work, all along its many ways, if ultimately not an entirely satisfying one.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 November 2023

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Beethoven's Assassins: Reviews: Andrew Crumey: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Andrew Crumey was born in 1961.

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© 2023 the complete review

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