Tess Gerritsen’s publisher wants to make damn certain you know that the Rizzoli and Isles characters in her newest novel are the same as those of the hit TNT television series. Not only is this declared on the top of the dust jacket but — for the first time in the series history — the title is not simply LAST TO DIE, but RIZZOLI & ISLES: LAST TO DIE.
To Gerritsen’s credit, however, she has refused to allow the sometimes deviating characteristics of the TV protagonists or the story arcs of the series to alter the ambience and narrative direction of her books. So her readers will be relieved to know that this latest, the 10th in the series, contains all the suspense, often-graphic realism and intricate plotlines they’ve come to expect from her.
Detective Jane Rizzoli is rescued from the personal hell of a bridesmaid’s gown fitting when she is called to the scene of a mass murder. The family of 14-year old Teddy Clock has been brutally slaughtered, leaving the boy in a state of shock and withdrawal. Slowly, Jane gains his trust and learns what little he witnessed.
Rizzoli’s friend and often crime-scene partner, medical examiner Maura Isles, accompanies Teddy to Evensong, an ultra-private, ultra-secure boarding school for troubled youth hidden in the woods of Maine. Along the way, Rizzoli and Isles discover that this is the second time Teddy has survived the murder of his family. Stranger still is revelation that two other students at Evensong, Will Yablonski and Claire Ward, share his tragic past.
Back at her home base in Boston, Rizzoli desperately searches for links that might connect the three teens, while Isles remains at Evensong and learns more about the school’s unusual philosophy and shadowy founders. But these investigations are abruptly halted when the security of Evensong is threatened and the three troubled teens find their lives once again in danger.
The plot of this latest entry is perhaps the most complicated of the series, and at times it feels as though Gerritsen struggles under its weight. Flashback scenes are necessary to tie Will and Claire into the story, but then there is an intrusive, italicized, additional voice that seemingly exists independent of the main narrative. It isn’t until the last quarter of LAST TO DIE that this extra voice is fully incorporated, and then the plot becomes an avalanche of twists, betrayals and unexpected new threats … to the point where credibility comes close to exploding.
Uniting all these story elements, and indeed, aiding the reader through all the complications, are the enduring and intriguing personalities of the franchise’s titular stars. Their determination to uncover the source of the murders, while protecting the three targeted teens, finds them sharing more scenes together — and thus, confiding more in each other — than we’ve experienced in a long time. So effective are these moments that the breakaway scenes of Rizzoli and her dysfunctional immediate family come off a bit stained and feel altogether unnecessary.
Longtime Gerritsen readers will recognize the various references to previous novels, especially 2006′s THE MEPHISTO CLUB. More recent readers are supplied enough background to avoid disorientation, but will probably find themselves yearning to immediately catch up with these earlier novels. Finally, and again to the author’s credit, this entry ends with us wondering what the fate of the two series stars will be.
RIZZOLI & ISLES: LAST TO DIE is, for all its occasional glitches, a very effective thriller and a more than worthy addition to the series. If your familiarity with these two characters is still limited to the TV screen, it’s high time you got to know the real Rizzoli and Isles. —Alan Cranis