‘Playing with Fire’ by Tess Gerritsen Review

Tess Gerritsen has long been my favourite novelist. I own a copy of every book she has written to date and have read many of them numerous times, enjoying each visit as much as the first. So when my boyfriend treated me to Gerritsen’s latest work ‘Playing with Fire’ I was understandably excited.

‘Playing with Fire’ promised a lot just from it’s blurb. A demented child, perhaps a supernatural mystery, murders, and indeed from the first few chapters it was everything I love about Gerritsen’s work. The plot was captivating, her style of writing so vivid you can’t help but be drawn in. It amazes me how she manages to be so vivid without going all Dickens on me and taking three pages to describe one street. As usual her lead character was down to earth, intelligent without being snooty and for the most part, relatable. The one thing I love about Gerritsen’s characters is that they always have some flaw, something lurking which could at any moment scupper things for them, in this case it was Julia’s mentally ill mother who had killed Julia’s brother when he was a baby.

As with many of Gerritsen’s novels there was the subtle undertone of romance, but as with all her books, the romance was not overpowering, it didn’t play second fiddle to what is primarily a thriller plotline. It’s one of the things I love most about her work, her ability to weave a romance plot that serves only to give depth to her characters. Many of Gerritsen’s characters are motivated by love, familial or romantic, but so often, aren’t we all? What is love if not the biggest motivator of them all? That’s why I always feel it has a place in Gerritsen’s novels, it gives characters a believable motivation. Here it motivated Julia to find out what was affecting her daughter, it motivated her husband to go to extreme lengths to protect his daughter and it drove Lorenzo to create stunning music and motivated Laura to place herself in danger.

The subtle romance only fuelled the thrilling tension of the novel. Who could really be trusted? What was really going on? So many questions that build and build and build.

And then suddenly, quite out of the blue, it just… ends.

The two plotlines converge years apart, Julia reaches the end of her journey, quite abruptly and we are told of Lorenzo and Laura’s end in a second hand report. I love Gerritsen, and I still say she is my writing idol, but the ending of ‘Playing with Fire’ really let me down.

I understand that really, from Gerritsen’s own note at the end of the novel, Julia’s is not the story the novel is supposed to tell, it’s Laura’s, and all the others like her, who stood up for what was right during the hideous crimes and slaughter of the second world war. But then surely, we should have been given a solid end to at least one of the stories.

Lorenzo’s music is not supernaturally haunted, it doesn’t hold secret powers nor had it possessed her daughter. Instead, Julia is ill. The whole thing has been in her head. Yes Lorenzo’s music is haunting, but it is not haunted and I have to say this left me rather disappointed. I was rather looking forward to Gerritsen taking on a supernatural edge, as this isn’t something she’s really done before and it seemed to be working well until this final revelation.

Julia has merely been a vessel through which we discover Lorenzo and Laura’s stories, much in a similar way to Gerritsen’s earlier novel ‘The Bone Garden’. But unlike ‘The Bone Garden’ the past and present plotlines don’t really tie in all that well, and perhaps, if Gerristen had wanted to tell the story of all those who sacrificed their lives for what was right during the second world war she should have written a hard hitting heart wrenching novel that focussed purely on Lorenzo and Laura.

Failing that this would have made a great supernatural thriller. Lorenzo’s ghost outraged and looking for vengeance through his music perhaps?

The promise was there. It just wasn’t really fulfilled. If anything, the end felt rather like a cop out, as though Gerritsen suddenly decided she didn’t want to write a supernatural thriller and very hastily dropped out in the only way she could think of. When the novel ended it felt, to me, as though the action had only really just got going. The assassins had only just caught up with Julia, her life only really very suddenly in danger. And then as suddenly as the assassins appear, they vanish again, and all is well but Julia is sick and needs medical attention – but she’ll be fine.

It pains me to say, but the end of this particular novel left me not only disappointed, but angry too. It could have been so much more and quite simply, it wasn’t.

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