Prolific Toronto writer and self-professed book gusher Rachel McMillan loves to sing jazz standards and pieces from the American Songbook, especially those by the Gershwins.
In her most recent novel, “The Mozart Code,” she “taps into the musical side of myself, having studied classical voice at the Royal Conservatory of Music throughout my childhood and teens,” she told The Star in an interview. Her protagonist Sophie Villiers adores Mozart’s piano concerto 17 in G Major, sometimes known as “The Starling,” because the final movement, the allegretto, replicates the composer’s pet songbird’s trill.
That piece acts as a motif in the novel: Sophie adopts “Starling” as her war name in the freelance work she does for powerful men in government, academia and art. She’s hired to find and return art and artifacts that the Nazis have stolen. Sophie (Lady Sophie, of the manor born) donates her fee from this work to a Viennese woman who runs a women’s shelter for victims of war crimes. It is her small, personal form of justice.
The rare piece of art at the heart of “The Mozart Code” – for which two clients compete to pay an extraordinary sum – is the rumored death mask of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The real-life mystery surrounding the mask intrigued McMillan. “Mozart’s death mask popped up in a Viennese pawnshop in 1947, but it was never authenticated, and that mystery informs my narrative,” she says.
In the heady days before pandemic lockdown, in December, 2019, McMillan traveled to Vienna and Prague, exploring on foot the two cities who claimed Mozart as their own. “[Mozart] was created in Austria, but it was Prague that celebrated him in his lifetime, ”she says. A flâneuse of the first order, she strolled happily through the cobbled streets, scribbling down distinctive sensory detail that would make its way into the narrative, resulting in vibrant descriptions that make reading “The Mozart Code” an immersive experience.
Her narrative also includes characters that devoted McMillan readers have met before – Simon Barrington, for instance, first appeared in “The London Restoration,” which McMillan says is a companion novel to this one.
She recalls that, when writing “The London Restoration” that Barrington insisted on his presence, as some of her characters are wont to do. He arrived in her imagination as “one of the talented nerds who worked at Bletchley Park … (When he) sat down at the Savoy for tea, his whole back story arrived with him.” She hears, she says, many of her characters quite clearly. “It often feels like I’m taking dictation from them.”
Here in “The Mozart Code” Simon sheds his family name because it has burdened him with the lifelong cruelty of his stepfather Charles, who has always resented Simon’s existence. McMillan explains that the stakes for Simon are personally high because “he is a man with no sense of belonging who will radically alter his self-image when he discovers who his true father is.” His personal struggles take a back seat, however, when he is tasked with pursuing members of the fictional “Eternity,” a well-organized, clandestine ring of Soviet sympathizers who are spreading a communist agenda throughout Cold War Europe.
Even though during the COVID-19 lockdown writing “often felt like breaking through thick ice,” McMillan says, “Sophie and Simon were my lockdown buddies. I’d look up and expect them to be there in the room with me. ” But lockdown also gave her insight into her own needs as a writer. “I know I need to be part of a writing community even if it’s only virtual for now; I try to approach everything from a place of gratitude as I look forward to returning to my local coffee shop and to libraries and to traveling for research. I want to be conscious of making the most of it all. ”
McMillan knows first-hand the popularity of historical fiction – you’ll know her for her Herringford and Watts mysteries set in Edwardian Toronto and the Van Buren and DeLuca mysteries set in 1930s Boston. She believes one of the reasons historical fiction is so popular is because “it allows us to see the best versions of ourselves as the characters overcome baffling adversity. We see ordinary people rising to challenges and we can understand how that might feel. ”
She hopes that by reading “The Mozart Code,” “people are inspired to learn more about the histories of Vienna and Prague and that it will empower them to realize that beauty is everywhere.”
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