Tess Gerritsen, author of the Rizzoli and Isles books, has written an engaging, stand alone thriller. Two narratives run through Playing with Fire in parallel until the end ties them together. Although it doesn't take a great leap to see most of the connections, there is a final twist that works well.
The first narrative is about a contemporary second chair violinist, Julia, who, while in Rome, finds an old book of gypsy (Roma) music and inside is a hand written piece with the title Incendio. Immediately she is taken by the beauty and complexity of the piece. However, she returns home to Boston and plays it, getting lost in the intensity and trying to play the difficult piece. She stops to find that the family cat is dead and her three-year old daughter is holding the garden implement that caused the cat's death. This sets off a chain of events that has her obsessively seeking the origins of the composition.
The second narrative takes place in Venice around the opening of the Second World War and is the story of Lorenzo, a violinist. His story, and that of Incendio is fraught with the tensions between a world gone mad and the belief that somehow, life will change for the better.
Playing with Fire moves at a brisk clip and the stakes become deadly for the two characters for seemly disparate reasons. Despite the pace, Gerritsen explores the underpinning questions about the nature of sanity and insanity and weaves the theme through the narratives without the exposition typical found in such weighty explorations.
Is there something wrong with Julia's daughter? Is this haunting piece of music affecting her? Is Julia, whose family has its own dark history of mental illness, loosing her mind? Will someone kill to protect their secrets? Will Italy go the way of Germany and eliminate those who are different, despite their deep integration into Venetian society? Will talent and the ability to create beauty protect when nothing else will? Questions of plot become rumination on something far more interior and personal - what are we, as humans, capable of and under what conditions?
The ending is a twist, yet all the pieces to solve the puzzle are there for the careful reader. Gerritsen does a fine job of balancing the history, the emotion, and the suspense with the thematic exploration of a complex topic through following the story of a haunting piece of music.