Productive Toronto author and self-proclaimed bookworm Rachel McMillan loves to sing jazz standards and pieces from the American Songbook, especially those by Gershwins.
In her latest novel, “The Mozart Code,” “she takes in the musical side of myself, after studying classical voice at the Royal Conservatory of Music through my childhood and adolescence,” she told The Star in an interview. Her protagonist Sophie Villiers adores Mozart’s Piano Concerto 17 in G major, sometimes known as “The Star”, because the last movement, the allegretto, repeats the composer’s pet song bird’s wheelbarrow.
That piece serves as a motif in the novel: Sophie adopts “Starling” as her War name in the freelance work she performs for powerful men in government, academia, and the arts. She is hired to find and return art and artifacts that the Nazis have stolen. Sophie (Lady Sophie, born of the manor) donates her honorarium from this work to a Viennese woman who runs a shelter for victims of war crimes. It’s her little, personal form of justice.
The rare work of art at the heart of the “Mozart Code” – for which two customers are competing to pay an extraordinary amount – is the infamous death mask of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The real mystery surrounding the mask fascinated McMillan. “Mozart’s death mask appeared in a Viennese pawn shop in 1947, but it was never authenticated, and that mystery tells my story,” she says.
In the hectic days before the pandemic lockdown, in December 2019, McMillan traveled to Vienna and Prague and explored on foot the two cities that claimed Mozart as their own. “[Mozart] was created in Austria, but it was Prague that celebrated him during his lifetime, ”she says. ONE flâneuse of the first order, she strolled happily through the cobbled streets, writing down characteristic sensory details that would find their way into the narrative, resulting in vivid descriptions that make reading the “Mozart Code” a captivating experience.
Her narrative also includes characters that devoted McMillan readers have met before – Simon Barrington, for example, first appeared in “The London Restoration,” which McMillan says is a companion novel to this one.
She recalls that when she wrote “The London Restoration”, Barrington insisted on his presence, as some of her characters tend to do. He arrived in her imagination as “one of the talented nerds who worked at Bletchley Park … (When he) sat down on the Savoy for tea, his whole back story came 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 throws out his last 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 personally are high because “he is a man without a sense of belonging who will radically change his self-image when he discovers who his true father is.” However, his personal struggles take a back seat when he is tasked with persecuting members of the fictional “Eternity”, a well-organized, secret ring of Soviet sympathizers who spread a communist agenda throughout Cold War Europe.
Although during COVID-19 lockdown writing “often felt like breaking through thick ice,” McMillan says, “Sophie and Simon were my lockdown buddies. I would look up and expect them to be in the room with me. . ” But lockdown also gave her insight into her own needs as a writer. “I know I have 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 to research. I want to be aware of getting the most out of it all. ”
McMillan knows first-hand the popularity of historical fiction – you will 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 that one of the reasons why historical fiction is so popular is that “it allows us to see the best versions of ourselves when the characters overcome confusing adversity. We see ordinary people taking up challenges, and we can understand how it can feel. ”
She hopes that by reading the “Mozart Code,” “people will be inspired to learn more about the history of Vienna and Prague, and that it will allow them to realize that beauty is everywhere.”
JOIN THE CONVERSATIONS