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I've read and reviewed quite a few Gerritsen novels now so when I came across Last To Die in the library, happily surprised to see something I hadn't read, I was looking forward to it. This novel didn't let me down, providing the expected mix of good characters, vivid scenery and some good old fashioned detective work.
On the front cover, it tells us that this is 'The new Rizzoi & Isles thriller'. Fans of Gerritsen will know them as the two protagonists, the former a detective and the latter a forensic pathologist. There are other key names you should recognise, such as Frankie and Korsak, however for those unfamiliar with Gerritsen you will still be able to catch up with the characters and enjoy the premise without the background knowledge.
Last To Die is based on three orphaned children, each the victim of violence; first their parents die a few years ago, on the same year, and then more recently their foster parents die. In each instance, the death may or may not seem suspicious, but it comes to light that none were accidental. Rizzoli begins investigating the case of Teddy, a young boy whose foster parents have just died, when she starts to spot the links between these cases, though no one else on the force can see the connection. The head of the force wants a quickly closed case, but Rizzoli's gut instinct is telling here there's more to it.
Meanwhile, the second part of the story brings us to Forensic Pathologist Maura Isles, who takes a trip out to a school to visit someone. Evensong is a castle in the middle of nowhere, like a mysterious fortress, built to keep evil out and shelter the souls of those children in side. It's designed to be a school to turn them in to survivors out in the Maine wilderness, which is why Maura Isles is already there, visiting Julian Perkins, aka Rat, who we met in a previous novel. Having survived an ordeal the previous year, Julian is the closest to a son Maura has, and she was keen to see how he was doing at the school, despite some initial scepticism. Evensong houses 'survivors' of attacks, many of whom have suffered at the hands of evil or whom have had family taken away by killers. As Maura asks her questions, she learns that Sansome (another character met in previous novels) is head of the school and that the Mephisto Club seem to be running it. She's not convinced that the school is simply there to help these children without considering their own causes and motivations first, however it's clear that the children are learning lots and, most importantly, that Julian seems happy.
Cutting back to Rizzoli, she takes Teddy to Evensong, having spoken to Maura and deciding that Teddy needs someone safe and secret to hide whilst she works out what's going on. However, she finds that the three children who seem tied by the deaths of their parents and foster parents, Teddy being the third piece of the puzzle, are now all under one roof at Evensong. A coincidence? No, Rizzoli doesn't believe in coincidences. The question is, what links these three children? Who wanted their parents dead, and who is after the children now? Will they be safe at Evensong whilst she tries to find the answers?
Alongside the investigative storyline, and the storyline of Isles and Julian 'Rat' Perkins, there are other goings on. Such as the relationships between the children at Evensong, mysterious goings on at the school, and events involving Rizzoli's mother and her recent problems with her father. This brings depth to the novel and keeps it fresh, extending and developing on characters and pieces of the puzzle as storylines begin to cross. I won't say any more on the premise, though that's roughly what's in the blurb.
I liked having the depth of ideas, events and characters throughout the premise, and how each starts to intertwine. Each aspect adds another dimension to what you're reading and makes it all the more interesting and evocative. Having read previous novels, I also enjoyed seeing familiar names like Sansome and reading about Jane's mother and Korsak, as it all gave a thread of familiarity with which to relate to. These different aspects of the premise intertwine and make things more interesting, more realistic and more engaging overall, seeming to be relevant rather than thrown-in superfluous details for the sake of it.
Gerritsen has a fantastic way of writing that I find incredibly engaging and easy to read. She lightens the tone with wit and sarcasm at just the right moments, for instance making Rizzoli quite a sharp and comical yet lovable character. At the same time, she always introduces some new knowledge; we learn more about poisons and post mortems and manners of death through the eyes of Isles, finding out details that make reading the novel more interesting, educational and credible. Whilst the premise does require engagement to keep up, Gerritsen doesn't over complicate things or rush ahead; she's able to maintain a good pace, mixing action with adequate amounts of reflection in order to remind us of what's going on so we don't get lost in a tangle of names and theories.
In terms of the detective work, the clues are dropped in and suspicions are raised throughout, giving the reader little parts of the puzzle over which to contemplate. She adds enough twists and turns that the novel is kept, well, novel and intriguing. I couldn't guess what was happening from the start but I was formulating my own ideas, and as more information comes to light, those ideas were reformed; Gerritsen is able to generate that atmosphere of mystery and suspense just enough that we're almost part of the investigation, part of the events at Evensong. Evensong itself was wonderfully brought to life, which is the other thing about the writer. She's creative in her literary devices and thus able to make scenes, settings and characters almost visible and palpable. You can quite easily imagine what's going on and how the school looks, how it feels when someone is wandering down a corridor in the dark, how the tension mounts when death is around the corner.
I wouldn't necessarily say this is Gerritsen's best work in terms of the plot and how it unravels towards the end, which I felt could have been made a bit clearer and potentially could have packed more of a punch. There was slightly less in the way of forensics and 'brutal' murders too, so it lacked a little grittiness in this element. However, this isn't a big draw back to the book as a whole, rather these points just make Last To Die a little different to her other novels.
On the back is further praise for Gerritsen, including 'Gruesome, seductive and creepily credible' - The Times, and 'Crime-writing at its nerve-tingling best' - Harlan Coben. I'd agree with all of the praise, and it's good to see some from credible sources as it gives more confidence in the author and novel.
Overall, this is one I'd recommend for both fans and newbies to Gerritsen. If you want gritty detective work, mystery and engaging characters, then this should be a book you can get lost in and not struggle to keep turning the pages.
328 pages over 34 chapters (hardback)