PLAYING WITH FIRE

By Tess Gerritsen

Ballantine Books, 2015

250 pages, $2

Julia Ansdell is a professional musician, an accomplished violinist with a keen ear for complex, haunting music. When she buys a tattered sheet of obscure music in a dusty antique shop in Rome, Italy, she never dreamed that the “Incendio” waltz would lead to madness and murder.

“Playing With Fire” is Camden best-selling author Tess Gerritsen’s 19th novel and is a most welcome and refreshing departure from her Rizzoli and Isles mystery series. There are no cops here, but there are plenty of plot twists and suspense in a unique story of present-day madness and World War II tragedy.

Gerritsen has always been a skillful and entertaining storyteller. Her clever mysteries have earned her legions of fans, and they will not be disappointed with this excellent, unusual tale. She offers an element of the supernatural here, but that’s just the hook to grab the reader’s attention. This is much better than just another spooky story.

At home near Boston, Julia plays the “Incendio” waltz on her violin, a disturbing piece of music that prompts three acts of violence, her terrible fear of her own 3-year-old daughter and the frightening realization that Julia may be going insane. And no one believes her explanation, not even her devoted husband.

Gerritsen parallels Julia’s creepy story with the World War II persecution of the Jews in Venice, a doomed love affair and the bizarre creation of the “Incendio,” a waltz “for the dying.”

Julia travels to Venice to investigate the composer and the music’s origin only to find herself involved in a war-crimes scandal, becoming the target of present-day killers who fear exposure and disgrace.

The music holds almost all the answers to Julia’s questions, but Gerritsen plays one last note that smartly brings the story to a surprising conclusion.

DISTANT COUSIN

By Delia Drake

North Country Press, 2015

163 pages, $12.95.

Thea Chadworth is 25 years old, the unmarried librarian in Trafton, Maine. She always believed that she was the orphaned niece of Aunt Wanda and Uncle Hal who raised her from infancy. But Thea is wrong. Now, as an adult, she is the unwitting target of a killer with a long reach and a cold-blooded motive.

“Distant Cousin” is the debut mystery novel by Vassalboro author Delia Drake (real name — Marti Brann). This is a very complex story, an uneven combination of murder mystery and corny royalty romance — sort of a seedy Downton Abbey with dead bodies, simpering servants and few manners.

When Thea returns to Trafton from school, she is stunned to learn her favorite Aunt Sue was killed in a fall thought to be accidental. But things don’t add up. Thea doesn’t believe it and is convinced Aunt Sue was murdered. When Aunt Sue’s will is read, Thea discovers she is the only heir to titled British royalty, inheriting millions, a castle estate in England and the title of Lady Tottersham. And an even more shocking secret is revealed.

The murder and surprising inheritance cause jealousy, revenge and greed to surface, along with two earlier suspicious family deaths. Thea is determined to figure it all out before she becomes the next victim. However, she is not a detective and relies on a hunky police lieutenant to follow the clues. They quickly fall in love in a sappy and contrived, whirlwind fairytale romance that occupies too much space and does little to enhance the mystery.

Drake includes plenty of clues, suspects and motives along with some solid suspense. But the unconvincing romance and unnatural, formal dialogue detract from the real mystery: Who killed Aunt Sue? And why is somebody now trying to kill Thea?

Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.


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