Music lovers know that Edward Elgar's famous orchestral work, Enigma Variations, is named for a hidden theme that runs through the work along with the main one. They also know that Elgar died without revealing what the theme was, leaving behind a cottage industry of solution manufacturing that persists to this day. Elgar loved puzzles, and this isn't the only one he left behind. All the variations of Enigma but one contain initials of their subjects, e.g., "CAE" is Caroline Alice Elgar, the composer's wife. The exception is believed to depict a woman Elgar for one reason or another decided not to name (there are several theories). Another mysterious reference appears at the beginning of his Violin Concerto: "Herein is enshrined the soul of …." Whose soul? His wife's? Or someone else's?
Elgar was a prominent but maddeningly secretive composer, and it is the air of mystery about him that Simon Boswell seized upon for his second novel (after The Seven Symphonies: A Finnish Murder Mystery). The book starts innocently enough. Psychologist Pandora Bell, recently dumped by her boyfriend and passed over for a promotion in favor of a man she has no respect for, is seeking cheer from an informal gathering for snacks and drinks (many) at the home of friends. Since no recently created single can attend such an event without meeting a hoped for future mate, "Pan meets Ron," quite informally as it turns out, on her friends' apartment balcony overlooking the city lights. Upon learning that Ron Chatterton is a musician, she tells him of a 13-year old musical savant that she's hoping to study named Caroline Alice Lawtham (the same first two names as Elgar's wife, so already, you know something's up). Since Pan knows little about music and Alice is autistic, Ron's musical expertise could prove invaluable. Would he accompany her to the girl's house? Ron is intrigued – by Alice and Pandora – and agrees to go.
In the process of getting acquainted with the girl, Ron plays an aria from one of Mozart's Italian operas on the piano. A half-hour later, Alice plays the same piece, accurately to the last note, while singing in a quasi-Italian dialect. She plays several other pieces, too, all with technique Ron found stunning, if unconventional. Ron is eager to work with Alice, but he must proceed carefully. Taking notes or using a recorder would upset the girl, so he installs a MIDI hookup to her piano that allows him to record all her key strokes and produce a digital score.
Enter David Powys Hughes, England's most famous living conductor. Sir David is a condescending irritant and a womanizer who shows interest in Pandora, but Ron shows him a CD of Alice's work anyway. To the conductor's amazement, one of the pieces is a completion of the first movement of Elgar's Third Symphony. Not the one Anthony Payne produced, but a new rendition, even closer to Elgar's style, so much so that it could have been written by the composer himself. Powys Hughes soon learns that, Alice – or is it Edward? – is in the process of completing her (his?) own version of Elgar's Third Symphony, one he will conduct to acclaim. Elgar is such a national figure in England that for many years his picture was on the 20-pound British note, so it is major news when the country's most prominent conductor insists that an autistic savant is channeling the country's most prominent composer. When the matter comes to the attention of skeptic Dominic Querne, whose passion is to refute supernatural frauds and fakes, the battle lines are drawn: Alice Lawtham: phenomenon or hoax?
From here the story becomes a marvel of delineation, with so many important characters making up the puzzle that it is remarkable how Boswell develops them all so well. Along the way, we encounter coincidences, composing, technology, electronics, coding, religion, hauntings, history, sailing, séances (hosted by a medium whose name Elgarians will recognize), and a bizarre email exchange. The story even takes on, with quite proper glee, the one mystery Elgar biographers treat like a mine field – whether or not Elgar was loyal to his 9-years-senior wife. The whole thing lays out like a tapestry and comes to a conclusion with the precise timing of a fine weave. I can picture Boswell diagramming his plot on a wall before writing. How else could he keep it straight? That it never feels diagrammed or leaves the reader confused is a triumph of storytelling.
Do you need to know Elgar the man to appreciate this book? No, though interest helps. To an extent, Edward Elgar plays the role of the hidden theme in The Elgar Enigmas. What he said about his Enigma Variations – "through and over the whole set another and larger theme goes, but is not played…the chief character is never on the stage" – applies here. For that reason Maestro Sir David Powys Hughes intersperses several interesting essays on Elgar into the story. Boswell did this sort of thing with Sibelius in his Seven Symphonies, but the Sibelius material had a bit of the adjunct about it – so much so that Boswell advised the reader that he/she could skip some of it without losing the story. Not so here. Fortunately, Elgar was a fascinating character. Boswell writes well about him, and it is fun to read it. (I'll leave it to the most informed of Elgarians to find any inconsequential errors.)
Like Seven Symphonies, The Elgar Enigmas is in some ways a descendent of the best of Wilkie Collins's breadth of plotting and Agatha Christie's sharp turns. Its nicely flowing prose is tighter and less sprawling than Collins, more literate than Christie, and mercifully devoid of the self-indulgent mannerisms that make so much modern fiction tiresome. The result is a terrific read for anyone interested in music and a must for Elgarians.
For information about the book and the author, plus a few links, see www.elgarenigmas.com.
 Elgar died in 1934, leaving behind sketches for a Third Symphony. In 1994, negotiations with the Elgar estate gave real life composer Anthony Payne permission to turn out a performing edition of the symphony from Elgar's sketches supplemented with Payne's own material. The result has been played and recorded many times to deservedly glowing reviews.
Copyright © 2010 by Roger Hecht.