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Beethoven's Assassins

Author: Andrew Crumey

Cover design: Marie Lane  

'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, including that of Adam Crouch, a failed writer and memorably seedy 21st century buffoon, who enters the story by accident, and becomes its final boozed-up witness to timeless tragedy.
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. The intensity with which the story questions the very nature of time, though – and follows its central voice, Robert Coyle, through the strange reality-shifting nightmare of the pandemic – seems entirely of this moment; as if Crumey were leading us into a terminal vortex of history and thought, music and culture, parallel universes and competing realities, where all things sparkle and implode with extraordinary vividness, on the edge of oblivion.'

Joyce McMillan in The Scotsman

'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.'

Alastair Mabbott in The Herald

He is one of Jonathan Coe’s “three or four favourite modern writers”. Hilary Mantel praised the “good-humoured, jaunty and sometimes enjoyably silly” nature of his work. So why isn’t Scottish novelist Andrew Crumey better known? Perhaps because (as Mantel also said) his books are “an intellectual treat”, and give our brains an unaccustomed workout.Crumey’s novels link stories in a complex matrix of equivalence, incorporating elements of the European enlightenment, parallel universes and daft jokes. Start with his shorter books Mobius Dick (2004) or Mr Mee (2000), or perhaps Sputnik Caledonia (2008), his most straightforward —- a relative term, in that it features only one pair of alternative worlds. The author’s new novel, Beethoven’s Assassins, takes its title from the (fictional) idea that at his death Beethoven was working on an opera called The Assassins, or Everything Is Allowed. We learn this from the earthy narrative that opens the book, from his sister-in-law Therese, who’s unimpressed by “that stupid deaf lunatic” Ludwig. Forget the “tunes and portraits”, she says. “I know what the real one smelled like.” But most of the book is set around the fictional Axtoun House in Berwick-upon-Tweed, the base for various pseudoscientific organisations, and structured — Cloud Atlas-like — as a series of chapters from the viewpoints of different visitors to the house in different eras. In 1823, a young governess, Marion, moves there to look after an orphaned boy; she hears that her predecessor died mysteriously, and learns about the Islamic Assassins sect, who “followed the wicked dictum: nothing is true and everything is allowed”. The story then whisks us to 1923, when Beethoven scholar JWN Sullivan is staying at Axtoun; Sullivan knows everyone, from the literati -- DH Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Aldous Huxley -- to charlatans like George Gurdjieff and Aleister Crowley.While he’s there, a resident begins channelling the voice of Therese van Beethoven. Then we find ourselves in the present day, as the grumpy, washed-up scriptwriter Adam Crouch (last success: Saveloy, a "nineties sitcom set in a chip shop") is at a conference, where he finds under his bed a USB stick containing a folder titled Assassins...Sitting alongside these worlds is a narrative by Robert Coyle, a writer who fills his empty time during Covid lockdowns with research about Beethoven, Sullivan and others, having been invited to the same conference as Crouch. And it’s in Coyle's sections that the book targets not just the brain but the heart, with a beautiful, vigorous account of his mother's death and father's decline into dementia and the "constant flow of Dadmin" that follows. 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. (Corresponding character names and descriptions, for example, suggest reincarnation across the centuries.) It’s a book about how “utopian idealism” can be born “from indignation more than love of humanity”, and about the human appetite for magical thinking, which arises in opposition to --- even as a consequence of --- our intellectual and scientific development. 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 in The Financial Times

Crumey gives each of his chapters its own period and central character, and flips from one to another with the dexterity and humour of a champion juggler. Matters of art, science and philosophy are deftly discussed and sometimes linked to each other within the narrative. 'Seeing connections everywhere is a hallmark of madness as well as German Romanticism' is just one of Crumey’s witty remarks, with a hint of self-mockery to it. But Crumey is not mad or a German Romantic; he is just full of pizzazz and fun.

Paul Griffith in The Literary Review

'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. Coyle’s mother has died suddenly, and his father has dementia. The writing here about the soul-grinding nature of the bureaucracy surrounding illness and death is chillingly good. The questions the novel poses about science and aesthetics (is Einstein as good as Beethoven?) pale in comparison to the rawness of the loss it depicts with the same scrutiny as an equation or a late quartet.'

Stuart Kelly in The Spectator

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.

Helen Johnson in The Historical Novel Review

"Beethoven's Assassins is a huge knickerbocker glory of a novel that weaves together history, art, science, music and more."

The Crack

'Crumey presents in Beethoven’s Assassins, a deliciously intellectual, ambitious book that explores time, metaphysics, narrative and pretty much everything, all at once.'

Ruth McKee in The Irish Times

Crumey mixes in a whole host of ideas, a slew of fascinating stories with plots which are sometimes resolved but often not, a range of historical characters, many of whom most of us will have known little about and a lot more about Beethoven, some of which might be true and some might not. In short this novel is aiming to be an everything novel, a novel which aims to cover a whole range of seemingly unrelated or only tangentially related topics while telling its story. From my side, it is a first-class novel and essential reading for anyone interested in the modern novel.

John Alvey in The Modern Novel

RRP: £12.99

No. of pages: 512

Publication date: 07.07.2023

Re-print date: 07.07.2023

ISBN numbers:
Printed Book
978 1 912868 23 0
978 1 915568 39 7

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