Lovesey has concocted a complicated mystery that begins in Bath, England, with the murder of a young woman, possibly Asian, with a minute musical symbol tattooed on her tooth. Other than this distinguishing mark, the body is literally unrecognizable, having been submerged in a watery grave too long for easy identification. What seems an impossible task is approached with the usual procedural diligence by Superintendant Peter Diamond and his West London detectives, the tedium of paperwork and examination that ultimately lead to an unusual group of suspects.
The featured players of this well-staged drama are the eccentric members of Staccato, an accomplished string quartet with an established reputation. While one of their members, violist Harry Cornell, has simply vanished while on tour in Europe, the others—Ivan, Anthony and Cat—have finally chosen Mel Farran as his replacement. Through a series of unexpected interviews with each member of the group, Mel is tested and found adequate to fill out the quartet for the upcoming season of appearances. Each player brings a positive reputation and financial opportunity to a quartet that has been inactive for too long. Thrilled to have the job, Mel practices furiously to perform to the group's standards, though he does wonder about the circumstances surrounding Cornell's disappearance. To that end, he begins a casual investigation on his own.
Both worlds collide—that of the investigation into the girl's death and the musical collaboration of the reconstituted group—when the evidence eventually points to a link between the victim and the quartet. They have recently been experiencing troubles of their own: a possible sighting of the assumed-dead Cornell, a stranger shadowing Mel and increasing pressure on the quartet, who is currently recording a new release. Inspector Diamond has his own problems, including a recent romantic crisis that has put him off his game and affected his ability to lead his team in a positive direction. Having difficulty concentrating on the business at hand, Diamond has to force himself into investigative mode.
Both fascinating in concept and diverse in rendering a musician's creative process and the actual performance of classical scores, the plot veers from the silence of the quartet's practice chambers to the world of wealthy investors who supply instruments to well-known musicians, from members of the yakuza to the Mafia, from Japan and Russia to Europe and back to a cartel in Bath, where the young woman's body initiated the investigation. Underneath it all is the usual banal motive for a heinous crime, but the mystery is cloaked in unusual characterization and diversity. You can almost hear the thundering notes of the quartet's instruments as they thrust and parry, the fiery exchanges and elegant interludes as four combine into one thrilling voice. Almost enough to kill for.
It is that element—motive—that injects Diamond into the otherworldly paradise inhabited by the quartet, the earthy reality of murder and ambition that mars the pristine landscape of a classical performance with the depravity of humans. For all the intensity of the music and the technique with which Lovesey brings it to life, murder is the common denominator, the great leveler that separates genius and eccentricity from one who would kill to maintain the status quo.