Think it would be fun to discover a lost symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven? Think again.
Inside the cedar box New Jersey hardware salesman Jake Hassler brings to auction house Cubbage & Wakeham is a pair of ledgers overflowing with handwritten musical passages, some scratched out, some incomplete, some written over. One of the volumes is labeled “Wilhelm Tell: Eine Dramatische Symphonie.” Under the increasingly pointed questioning of partner Harrison Ellsworth Cubbage III and Mitchell Emery, the ex-prosecutor heading the firm’s Department of Authentication and Appraisal, Jake tells how, after the death of his grandfather Otto Hassler in Zurich, he and Otto’s neighbor Ansel Erpf found the volumes in Otto’s attic and he spirited them out of the country before Ansel, Otto’s residuary legatee, could object. Everyone involved is afraid to believe that the find amounts to a version, however sketchy and incomplete, of Beethoven’s 10th Symphony, but that’s exactly what everyone wants it to be. Before Cubbage & Wakeham can move to offer the maybe-priceless item at auction, they have to explain its radical departures from the master’s other symphonies; they have to establish Jake Hassler’s clear title to it as part of the personal papers his grandfather left him; they have to determine what revisions might be required to make it performable; and they have to fight off the amusingly and increasingly determined attempts of Swiss and German attachés, an unnamed Asian millionaire, and several lesser private citizens to claim title or, failing that, to inveigh against its legitimacy. Novelist/historian Kluger (Indelible Ink: The Trials of John Peter Zenger and the Birth of America’s Free Press, 2016, etc.) knows both his Beethoven and his legal quiddities inside out, and over the course of an investigation headed mostly by Mitch Emery, he succeeds in casting serious doubt on the bona fides of American academics, German scholars, Swiss bankers, and virtually everyone else involved in this seven-course banquet of musical legend and coldhearted fraud.
There are so many layers beneath layers of deception, in fact, that even the most enthralled readers—and there will be many—are more likely to greet the climactic twist with exhausted relief than satisfaction.