A novel often is the best way of presenting the emotional content of historical events. By fictionalizing a tragedy, a time or a way of life, an author invests them with human drama. Loss, love, spirit are transferred to the reader's mind within the realm of history.
So it is with Tess Gerritsen's "Playing with Fire," a novel in which she weaves the story of a star-crossed World War II-era couple with a modern contemporary mystery. The two stories are linked by sheet music, the mysterious, passionate "Incendio" which violinist Julia Ansdell purchases in a Roman antique shops during a visit to Italy. She brings it home to Boston and begins to practice its odd, minor chords and lightning-quick arpeggios.
But Ansdell's 3-year-old daughter displays uncharacteristically violent behavior linked to the music. Once she has clearly identified music as the source of her child's outbursts, she finds no one will believe her. Leaving the U.S., Julia searches for the music's history, tracking the music to its roots. While this may seem improbable, it is the framework of a nice little mystery: one that will bring its protagonist into seriously threatening circumstances as she digs into a murderous history that a family no longer wants to see brought to light.
Within the sub-plot, there is a sampling of the cruel depravity German soldiers visited on Jewish prisoners during the war, drawing readers deeper into the plight of the original composer, Lorenzo's, ill-fated life. The terror that he experiences in a concentration camp becomes part of the plot but also becomes the genesis of "Incendio," as Lorenzo grapples with horror and fury as he's forced to play as loud as he can to mask the screams of dying Jews. It is horrific, and Gerritsen's straightforward recounting of the situation is riveting, as well as scarring to one's soul.
Allowing Julia to ferret out such details as she digs into a lost life is that much more arresting, and Gerritsen does it well. She also creates a murder mystery that leaves Julia in a frightening situation far from home, attempting to bring justice to the memory of the violinist-composer.
All of this is recounted skillfully—the book is not at all confusing, and Gerritsen's skillful writing makes the action both fluid and exciting.