Friday, April 18, 2014
By FRANK O SMITH
Tess Gerritsen knows how to hook readers early. In "Last to Die," her latest installment of her Rizzoli & Isles suspense series, the opening sentence reads: "On the night that thirteen-year-old Claire Ward should have died, she stood on the window ledge of her third-floor Ithaca bedroom, trying to decide whether to jump."
"LAST TO DIE." By Tess Gerritsen. Ballantine Books. 338 pages. $27.
The second chapter opens with this: "On the night fourteen-year-old Will Yablonski should have died, he stood in a dark New Hampshire field, searching for aliens."
By the end of chapter four, we know that 14-year-old Teddy Clock hid under his bed in a Beacon Hill mansion in Boston while someone murdered his foster parents and three foster sisters.
Boston Detective Jane Rizzoli gets called in to investigate the gruesome Boston crime scene. She learns that Teddy Clock has the shadow of two eerily similar tragedies darkening his life: Two years prior, his parents were murdered.
Later, Rizzoli gets a call from her friend, Maura Isles, the Boston medical examiner who did the autopsies on the Beacon Hill victims. Isles is at Evensong, a private school in rural Maine, visiting a young friend who has been placed there.
Evensong is a very unique and exclusive school. It is housed in a 19th century replica of a Gothic castle. Because of its isolation and security systems, it is a safe haven for children who have experienced the violent death of a family member.
Isles tells Rizzoli of two other students at Evensong: Claire and Will, who share incredibly similar case histories to Teddy's. The parents of all three were killed two years before -- in the same week in different parts of the world, and then their foster parents within weeks of each other. All three were also at the last scene of slaughter, with Claire and Will strangely rescued only moments after by a mysterious woman who suddenly disappears once the kids are safe.
Though Rizzoli's superiors are initially reluctant to give her rein to investigate Teddy's circumstances as part of a larger, multi-jurisdictional conspiracy, she is undaunted. She heads for Evensong -- with Teddy in tow.
This essentially is the set-up for the mystery. There are half-a-dozen major questions posed for Rizzoli and Isles just by these elements alone. The primary challenge is to establish what connects the three children's fates.
The story gets ever more perplexing as it progresses, adding questions on top of questions. Gerritsen subtly seeds terrific miscues all along the way. Pursuing answers draws dead ends and surprises. There's a trip to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland; speculation on extraterrestrial life; and a connection to the Vatican.
There is also an adjunct story line about a dramatic rendition of a crime boss financier who we learn about through an anonymous first-person account told by a participant in the botched kidnapping. Gerritsen crafts twists and turns that will keep readers guessing about how everything fits together to the very end.
Reading a well-crafted thriller is like sitting down opposite a grand master at chess. The author knows all the moves to the end, but is tasked with providing clues and credible and satisfying miscues while adhering to the rules of the game.
I had trouble with some details and miscues that I felt stretched the logic of the plotting when all the evidence was in. One of the most serious occurs in the anonymously told adjunct story having to do with personal background. One of the book's great strengths and appeal is that there are so many compelling threads that have to be tied up, but I found it too convenient to resolve the most tragic end-game outcome with a miracle.
This is not to say that I didn't enjoy the read -- I did. Tess Gerritsen sets the bar high with "Last to Die." She had me from the opening line. And she kept hooking me in deeper as the story unfolded. The climactic final twist marked by an unexpected gunshot caught me totally by surprise. Miracles aside, Gerritsen delivers a good read.
Frank O Smith's novel "Dream Singer" was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize. He can be reached at: