Beethoven’s Assassins

Andrew Crumey

(Dedalus, £12.99)

Beethoven is dead ... deaf! No, definitely dead. His brother’s wife, Therese, has mixed feelings, remembering the composer mainly as a scrounging vagabond and a terrible houseguest who once scribbled on her expensive mural. He in turn scorned her as a “fallen woman” and a gold-digger. Nevertheless, she was good and dutiful enough to sit at his bedside as he lay dying and heard his last, whispered words: “Everything is allowed.”

What did he mean? Was Beethoven commissioned by Freemasons to write a secret, lost opera entitled The Assassins, or Everything is Allowed, which, if found, would be worth an incalculable sum? That question binds together the separate narratives of this ambitious, fascinating, engaging novel – along with the eerie strains of the glass harmonica and the pungent aroma of a mesmeric potion.

Andrew Crumey, former literary editor of Scotland on Sunday, has a PhD in Theoretical Physics and a reputation for writing post-modern “philosophical fantasies” outside the mainstream tradition. For that reason, he’s the kind of novelist you expect will be heavy going, but are always pleasantly surprised by.

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Beethoven’s Assassins may be a gloriously multi-faceted puzzle-box of a novel, but even those anticipating a dense, abstruse intellectual exercise of interest only to literary theorists will find themselves drawn in by its well-drawn characters and emotional weight.

Beethoven is almost entirely absent from his own story, the main strand being a first-person narrative by academic Robert Coyle, who is working on an essay on Beethoven and philosophy during the Covid lockdown, a time when regulations are preventing him from visiting his parents just when he’s most concerned about their well-being.

The location around which most of the book’s Beethoven-related enigmas revolve is a stately home called Axtoun House, now rechristened the Hyle Centre and bringing together people who have distinguished themselves in their various disciplines. Long before then, back in 1823, it is visited by a young woman called Marion who has been employed as a governess for a boy with learning difficulties and learns that its owner, the Colonel, is part of a secret society whose elaborate conspiracy theories embrace the Knights of Malta, the Russian Tsar and literal mind control.

A century later, the writer J.W.N. Sullivan arrives at Axtoun House. Author of one of the earliest books on relativity, he plans to follow it up with a study of Beethoven, seeing the philosophical implications of Einstein’s work as a way of bridging the gap between the arts and the sciences. He has been invited by the present incumbent to assess a psychic phenomenon that might have far-reaching implications.

In the present day, washed-up comedy writer Alan Crouch is invited to a conference at the Hyle Centre as a last-minute replacement for a guest who died on the premises. He’s an incongruous figure among the intellectual heavyweights and just wants to get drunk and make a start on his novel. Fate, though, has other plans for him, in the shape of a secret Axtoun House has been sitting on for 200 years.

Beethoven’s Assassins is that refreshing thing, a novel of ideas with all the intrigue and momentum (and occasional red herring) of an absorbing mystery, underscored by a dark, ironic sense of humour. Coyle’s shifting relationship with his dementia-afflicted father, Crouch’s feelings of inadequacy, Marion’s compassion for the boy in her care and Therese’s willingness to forgive her brother-in-law Beethoven on his deathbed all anchor the story in a relatable humanity, even as the characters are drawn inexorably into a weird hinterland of esoteric lore, paranormal phenomena and ancient conspiracies.