Beethoven’s Assassins (Dedalus Original Fiction In Paperback)

Written by Andrew Crumey
Review by Helen Johnson

The opening to this book reminded me of Monty Python’s Beethoven’s Mynah Bird sketch. Beethoven’s sister-in-law complains of how difficult he was to live with. To ensure that we know she is untroubled by higher intellectual capacity, her voice has traces of a northern accent. Thus begins a long and meandering tale, featuring a multitude of characters and a definitely non-linear time-line.

Like Beethoven’s music, the first impression is of an assault on the senses. Chapters leap from 1820s Austria to pandemic-bound North-east England, with an interlude in a 1920s new age commune near Paris, and a slice of life from a Jane Eyre-like 1820s governess. Other characters include a 1920s journalist, and, in the present day, a philosopher and a sitcom script writer. The themes seem at first chaotic. Hoarding, the pandemic, ageing, quantum theory, mesmerism and mystic sects all feature in what ultimately proves to be a meditation on the meanings of both art and time.

Individually, chapters are well-written, immersive in their setting. Frequent references to Beethoven’s works, and works by his biographers and critics, demonstrate the author’s homework. Eventually, the Beethoven references link the characters. And when two of them meet, they are not shy of discussing the man still regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Western World.

Their stories gradually coalesce around the secrets of a remote country house, somewhere in the borders between England and Scotland – borders being another of the themes of this book. What are they? Do they exist outside the minds of those who believe in them? What is existence, anyway? This is a book to appeal to readers who enjoy time-travel, mystery, illusion – and no clear-cut answers.