Last month while poking around in a used bookstore in Cambridge, I found an odd little paperback in the mystery section. The cover showed a man sitting on a red hammer and sickle playing a cello, while a malicious-looking face hovered in the air behind him. “The Philomel Foundation,” said the cover, “The exciting debut of the Antiqua Players. By James Gollin.”
First published in 1980 by an obscure press called International Polygonics Limited, the book is a spy novel about an early music ensemble who are recruited by a shadowy foundation to travel to East Germany during the Cold War to help a Soviet dissident escape to the West.
It’s well-written, but a book that injects detailed descriptions of what it’s like to play early music into a Cold War spy thriller can only be called an obscure pleasure. It worked for me, but how many others would wade through passages like this:
After four more bars, I fall out, grab back my alto recorder and rejoin on the top line. For the final repeat, we’re a mixed consort: bass viol, bass recorder, tenor recorder, and wooden flute. Working out all this instrumentation so that it doesn’t sound too choppy or too cute takes hours of rehearsal time….
…in order to get to passages like this:
…When the shot took him he was just starting to inch his way down the slight gradient from the edge of the road into the dry ditch. The force of the bullet shoved him backward into the ditch. His heels caught. He sat down abruptly on the far bank….
I mean, seriously, would you read this book?