I have no idea how many string quartet aficionados enjoy crime fiction, but they should hasten to read the veteran British writer Peter Lovesey’s fascinating “The Tooth Tattoo.” Strictly speaking, the novel is a police procedural, but the kicker is that the prime suspects in three murders are the members of a world-class string quartet called Staccati.
I hasten to add that readers who, like me, know little or nothing about string quartets (my musical highlight each year is the Birchmere’s Hank Williams tribute) can still savor this ingenious novel.
At the outset, Peter Diamond, who heads the criminal division of the Bath, England, police, is vacationing in Vienna with his elegant friend Paloma. She wants to visit Beethoven’s home, but he’s more interested in seeing highlights — the sewer, the Ferris wheel — of Carol Reed’s Vienna-based 1949 movie classic, “The Third Man.” As they wander, the couple chance upon a flower-strewn memorial to a young Japanese woman who drowned in the Danube a few years earlier. Paloma is moved by the tragedy, but it’s not Diamond’s case, so he’s indifferent. Naturally, she berates him for his alleged inability to express his feelings. “What do you expect?” the detective retorts. “I’m a bloke.”
In this country he’d say, “I’m a guy,” but it’s all the same. So is the outcome: The argument escalates, he stubbornly defends his right to be a guy, and she dumps him.
Soon the drowned woman in Vienna becomes newly relevant when another young Japanese woman is fished out of a canal in Bath — for that is Diamond’s case. He learns that both women loved string quartets, and that Staccati was playing in both Vienna and Bath at about the time they went missing — and possibly were murdered. One of the women had a “tattoo” on her tooth that featured a musical note, although they really aren’t tattoos but small chips that can be glued on. That’s the source of the book’s title, which is the only thing I didn’t like about it.
We soon learn a lot about the four members of Staccati. Ivan, a dour Russian violinist, co-founded the group with a woman called Cat, who is huge (“the girth of a sumo wrestler”), bawdy and a virtuoso on the cello. Andrew, the second violinist, is brilliant musically, although he rarely speaks and is thought by the others to be autistic. Finally, there’s Mel, the newcomer to the group, who plays the viola, chases girls in his spare time and was recruited to replace Harry, who mysteriously vanished after a concert in Budapest. The four argue a lot and have little in common except their love of music, but that’s enough to keep them together.
Lovesey has won many prizes for his crime fiction; we expect fine writing and devilish plots from him. But the wonder of this novel is how deep he carries us into the world of a string quartet. He knows the music, and he makes clear its beauty, its challenges and the passions it arouses in both musicians and their audiences.
One highlight of the novel is a two-page, all but microscopic description of the quartet’s rendition of Beethoven’s Opus 131. Here’s a small sample: “Toward the middle of the first movement the violins speak to each other with the last six notes of the fugue motif and then viola and cello take up the dialogue in one of the loveliest passages in the entire quartet repertoire.”
This novel will probably teach you more than you ever expected to know about string quartets. Did you know that celebrated players often use instruments on loan from wealthy collectors? Mel is using a rare 1625 Amati viola, valued at more than a half-million dollars, and only too late he discovers that there’s no such thing as a free viola.
You’ll learn of their frustrations, too. Cat denounces what she calls the “music merchants,” of whom she says: “They take second-rate artists with pretty faces, groom them, call them the voice or the player of the century, and turn them into stars. . . . The quality of the sound is crap, they’re off-key, and the great gullible public doesn’t seem to notice.”
Eventually, the deaths of the two young women are followed by that of someone close to the group. We agonize over whether one of these dedicated musicians could be a killer — or is the culprit an outsider? — but Diamond sorts things out with his usual aplomb. Lovers of good music and a good mystery should not miss this delightful tale.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
THE TOOTH TATTOO
By Peter Lovesey
Soho. 348 pp. $25.95