Last to Die

Tess Gerritsen
September 2012, Suspense
Ballantine, $27.00, 352 pages, Amazon ASIN 0345515633
Part of a series

Grade: B+
Sensuality: Subtle

You know that saying "If I didn't have bad luck I'd have no luck at all?" That definitely applies to several of the characters in this book. Only their bad luck is of the man-made variety. And it is very, very bad indeed.

Jane Rizzoli is having one of those days. Her mother, soon to be married, has made Jane a pink nightmare of a bridesmaid's dress. Even as Jane tries to diplomatically deal with this fashion mess - diplomacy never being her strong point - her father and brother arrive at the house. Turns out dad the cheater feels he made a bad decision and wants mom back. Thank God Jane's phone rings and she is called to a homicide.

Well, maybe she was thankful too soon. The horrifying scene involves three innocent, beautiful little girls and their parents. All brutally and efficiently slaughtered. The sole survivor is a young boy, Teddy. Teddy would have plenty of reason to be traumatized by the murder of his foster family, but bizarrely, there is yet more to the story. It is not the first time this has happened to him. He is a foster child because his entire birth family was murdered. Jane, not a big believer in coincidences, becomes very suspicious, very quickly. Why would someone kill so many people just to get at a pre-pubescent geek?

Maura Isles doesn't have many special moments to look forward to but tomorrow is an exception. Even as she deals with the horror of the crime scene, she finds herself anticipating her coming holiday. She leaves for Evensong in the morning, the boarding school where young Julian Perkins is currently studying. Julian and Maura had survived a hellish ordeal together and the two have developed a tentative mother-child bond. Maura is determined to fully become the parent Julian needs, although she has no clue how to go about doing that. Hopefully the week she will be spending with him while he is on school break will be the perfect time to figure that out.

But Evensong doesn't turn out to exactly be an idyllic vacation spot for Maura. The first day of her trip reveals a troubling factoid she never knew about the school; every child there has lost a family member(s) to violence. The school provides psychiatric counseling to help them deal with the trauma as well as training to help them combat violence in everyday life. Maura is fine with the first but less than pleased with the second. Even as she is working on dealing with this issue she finds herself caught up with a crime within the school and the fact that Jane is heading up to Evensong. Seems Teddy is not alone in losing both his birth and foster families. And it seems like the killer is far from finished with their spree.

This book defined "page turner" for me. I picked it up one Saturday morning and didn't surface till I was done. Among its many strengths are fascinating secondary characters, a believable red herring and a lovely, frantic sense of time running out. It is clear that this murderer will stop at nothing to get their prey. It is equally clear that Jane and Maura have no intention of stepping aside. The tension and pacing here are dead on. I had a real sense that anything could happen.

I've heard Gerritsen criticized for her characterization before. Frankly, if you haven't read the other books in the series you won't get a clear picture of the many nuances that are Maura and Jane. The author doesn't take up page time to reestablish her characters. I'm good with that. In this novel we get just a glimpse of Jane as mom, wife and daughter. The concentration here is on Jane as a cop. We see in full force the ingenuity, intuitiveness, and tenacity that make her an excellent detective. Maura is at a crossroads in her life. She has ended a very inappropriate and damaging affair. She feels somewhat lost without that anchor in her life. She is building upon the relationship she has with Julian and she feels lost there too. She has taken on the mom role to a teen and has missed all the buildup that gives you knowledge about the inner working of the young person before you. As she struggles to learn the ropes of parenting, she finds herself working during her vacation. This doesn't give her much bonding time with the boy she came to visit. So the book concentrates very much on the working personas of these characters. That works for me because it gives the author time to concentrate on what matters in a mystery - the mystery.

What it also gives her time to concentrate on are the secondary characters. The fact is that if Maura and Jane were the target or center of every mystery the series would get silly. And boring. So we need compelling victims to make the whole thing both thrilling and heart stirring. Teddy, Will, and Claire all spring to life on the page. By the time I came to the end of the novel I was rooting for them to make it, to outsmart the killer. Young Claire especially touched me. She took responsibility for so much that wasn't her fault and she had a great deal to overcome. Yet through out the novel the girl is a fighter. I loved her.

I've also appreciated how the author has stayed true to the characters she has created. It would be easy for her to change Maura and Jane to more closely resemble their television personas. I think that would be a big mistake. The kind of thriller she writes is more suited to the somber, serious characters she has spent years crafting. A girly Maura and boy crazy Jane just wouldn't fit. They are fine for the series but the books call for something different.

One small blip in the novel is that at the end one of the characters seemed to have information that could have ended this whole thing before the killing of Teddy's foster family. It could definitely have had the villain in hiding before they ever reached the climax. Why then didn't they use it? I read the ending twice and the only thing I could figure was that they were selfishly looking for a more permanent solution - which didn't really work for me. That didn't happen till the last twenty pages though and it certainly didn't effect the power of the mystery. Just made me like that particular character and their accomplice a whole lot less.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a tautly written thriller. I rarely read a book straight through. I just don't have the time. For this one, I made the time.

-- Maggie Boyd

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