In The Tooth Tattoo, we meet Mel Farran, a freelance viola player who is on his way home from a concert. He is mugged by an attractive Japanese girl and her accomplice and he gives chase but they make off with his valuable viola.
Then the story skips forward seven years. Farran receives a mysterious job offer. He is asked to join one of the world’s most celebrated string quartets, The Staccati. The group has been booked for a profitable residency at Bath University, and when Farran is offered the loan of a beautiful and ancient instrument, he thinks his life has taken a turn for the better.
Meanwhile, Bath policeman Peter Diamond is on holiday with his girlfriend, Paloma. They are in Vienna, and as Diamond tries to retrace the cinematic footsteps of Harry Lime, he comes across a makeshift floral shrine on the banks of the Danube Canal. On returning to Bath, Diamond finds that Paloma is tired of his attitude towards their relationship, and she leaves him.
However, he has little time to ponder the downturn in his love life because the body of a young woman is found in the river. Records – and an elaborate tooth tattoo of Japanese origin – lead to the body being identified as that of a visiting Japanese student with a love of music. Meanwhile Farran is trying to come to terms, both musically and socially, with the three other members of the quartet. Ivan, the first violinist, is an austere and humourless Russian, while the second violinist, Anthony, is an autistic South African, totally lacking in social skills but a brilliant player. The cellist is Cat, a blonde woman with a Mae West physique and personality to match.
Diamond is reluctantly drawn into their circle, as it becomes clear that there is a musical link to the death of the young Japanese woman. As The Staccati residency gets busier, Farran discovers the truth behind the disappearance of Harry, his predecessor. When Harry actually turns up on Farran’s doorstep, the bitchy but relatively safe world of the professional musician becomes a whole lot nastier.
I very much enjoyed the musical background to the story. The precarious and precious world of a top string quartet is vividly portrayed, as is the almost mythical importance of the lovely old instruments they play. I don’t know if the author is a musician himself or a brilliant researcher, but as a former musician I was completely convinced by the attention given to the detail and complexity of the quartet repertoire, and the obsessive lives of professional players.
The plot is very, very complex. Spanning, as it does several years and several cities, it is not easy to keep track of events and each character’s motives. The story relies heavily on what some would call quirks of fate, and others big coincidences. The denouement is very cleverly handled, however, and took me by surprise. This is the 13th Peter Diamond story, and the rumpled and occasionally gauche detective clearly has devoted followers. Violent death – even within the confines of a novel – should diminish us all, but in this case I’m afraid that I was insufficiently bothered about either the victims or the search for those responsible.
We reviewed Peter Lovesey’s previous book Cop to Corpse here.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars