Playing with Fire, by Tess Gerritsen

Seven stars

In a break from her mystery novels, Gerritsen offers up a unique story that blends music with history to produce a chilling narrative that will touch readers at their core. While on a trip to Italy, violinist Julia Ansdell finds a unique and unpublished piece that piques her interest, in Incendio waltz. Upon her return to Boston, she begins to unravel its mysteries by playing it, or at least trying to do so. Each time she begins, the haunting dissonant tones seem to evoke disturbing results in Julia’s three-year-old daughter, Lily. Convinced the piece brings about sociopathic tendencies in the toddler, Julia tries to determine its history, while battling with her husband and medical professionals, none of whom can understand why Julia blames Lily’s behaviours on a piece of music. In a parallel narrative, Gerritsen tells the story of Lorenzo, also an accomplished violinist, who is living in Italy in the years before the Second World War. As Mussolini holds a firm grip on the country, he begins to mirror the efforts of his fascist counterpart and commences a vilification of the Jews. Lorenzo is torn from the life he knew and the woman he loved all because of this directive. Sent to an internment camp, he is chosen to serenade those who are kept as prisoners, a small ray of hope in a life that remains dreary. As Julia uncovers this, she also learns more about the Incendio, which is telling in its history. Gerritsen pulls on the reader’s heart strings in this shorter novel that tells a story more important than any Rizzoli and Isles mystery could hope to accomplish.

While I have been a long-time fan of Gerritsen and her mysteries, I took a chance on this novel, in hopes that it would be as exciting. While I was unsure where things were headed in the opening chapters, I soon realised the complexities of the story, told in such a succinct fashion. While the novel is a layers double narrative that does, eventually, meld into one, it seemed less developed or substantial than it could have been. Gerritsen taps into the historical mistreatment of the Jews, told from an Italian perspective, but it is the modern-day story that drew me in a little more. How a piece of music could cause such mayhem in a toddler seemed to be a hook in the story, though the eventual explanation seemed a let-down. I had hoped to discover more in the medical or musical realms, perhaps pining for more mystery than history. That said, it was a quick read and flowed nicely, with decent characters and believable dialogue. I think Gerritsen fans would enjoy this, if they are able to suspend a little of their mystery-centred passion.

Kudos, Dr. Gerritsen (do you still hold your medical title?) for this novel, which touches the heart and shows you put your all into your writing. I wonder what you have on the horizon to appease your loyal fans.