Tess Gerritsen is the author of 11 Rizzoli & Isles mysteries — the Boston-based series featuring a female homicide detective-and-medical examiner duo that has found a large following in print and on television. But before Gerritsen penned the first of those mysteries, she was a prolific writer of stand-alone romantic suspense novels and thrillers, which Rizzoli & Isles kept her away from for eight years — until her latest, “Playing With Fire.”
A marked departure from Gerritsen’s past work, this expertly plotted thriller combines a combustible mix of contemporary family drama with the history of Europe during World War II, built around a mysterious musical score.
Narrated by Julia Ansdell, a second violinist in a Boston string quartet, “Playing With Fire” begins on a sweltering afternoon in contemporary Rome. After performing in a music festival, Julia spies an old book of music in an antique shop window. Flipping through its crumbling pages, she discovers a loose page of manuscript, crowded with musical notes, titled “Incendio” by an L. Todesco. The composition starts simply in E minor, then gains a sense of urgency, until the melody is a “frantic maelstrom of notes that make the hairs suddenly rise on my arms.” Determined to possess it, Julia pays the extravagant sum of 100 euros to get the secret manuscript.
Back home with husband Rob and 3-year-old daughter Lily, Julia eagerly plays the haunting composition. As the waltz progresses, Julia is soon struggling to keep up with the music. She’s roused from her frenzied playing to find her daughter’s blood-smeared hand grasping her leg and the beloved family cat dead in the next room. A second disturbing incident drives Julia and Rob to seek help medical help for their daughter.
A pediatrician and psychiatrist examine Lily and interview Julia, who fears she’s being made the culprit, responsible somehow for her daughter’s violent actions. Could there be hereditary factors at play? Julia begins to suspect something else: The music contained “devil’s chords,” considered so dissonant in medieval times they were banned from church music. She asks the shopkeeper to make inquiries into its origins, wondering if the music could be the source of Lily’s frightening behavior.
Lest readers think they’ve stumbled into Stephen King territory, Gerritsen grounds her mystery in history, flashing back to a Jewish ghetto in Venice in the 1930s and ‘40s. There, teenage violinist Lorenzo Todesco plays classical compositions with such sensitivity that passersby weep in the streets. Recognizing Lorenzo’s immense promise, his grandfather Alberto, a violinist and professor at Ca’ Foscari Institute, gives him his treasured violin to play and pass on to the next generation.
Lorenzo senses the possibilities in his grandfather’s words when he’s introduced to Laura Balboni, a 17-year-old cellist. Laura’s father wants her to enter a prestigious music competition at Ca’ Foscari with Lorenzo as her partner. But as captivated as Lorenzo is upon meeting the young cellist and impressed with her passion for music, “the sight of that gold cross gleaming from her neck at her breastbone gave him pause.”
The young man’s hesitation is not unfounded: By 1938, Italy was under the control of Mussolini, whose fascist regime systematically excluded Jews from Italian life. Gerritsen shows with poignancy those early signs of a darker future for the Todescos — Alberto loses his position at the institute, Jews are prohibited from performing in the Ca’ Foscari competition. But Lorenzo and Laura, by now deeply in love, defy the government’s orders and perform together at the competition, consequences be damned.
Through alternating sections, Gerritsen contrasts the tension of the lovers’ battle against the fascists with the oppression Julia feels at the hands of her daughter and the medical profession. Julia is given an ultimatum: Submit to “voluntary” evaluation and hospitalization or lose custody of her daughter.
Instead, she flees, using a music festival in Trieste as a cover. She’s lured by an address in the manuscript, spurred by the knowledge that something terrible has happened to the shopkeeper who sold it to her. In Venice she discovers what befell Lorenzo Todesco and his family during World War II, a tragedy that has dangerous repercussions for Julia in present-day Italy.
“Playing With Fire” will make readers drop everything to immerse themselves in its propulsive dual narrative. As beloved as Rizzoli & Isles may be, they can go on sabbatical more often if that gives Gerritsen time to craft terrific thrillers like this.
Playing With Fire
By Tess Gerritsen
Ballantine: 272 pp., $28
Woods is the editor of several anthologies and four novels in the Charlotte Justice mystery series.