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Originally published Friday, May 3, 2013 at 5:32 AM

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‘The Tooth Tattoo’: music and murder on Inspector Diamond’s mind

Peter Lovesey’s new detective novel, “The Tooth Tattoo,” combines mystery, murder and music-making in the ancient city of Bath, England. Lovesey appears Friday, May 10, at Seattle Mystery Bookshop and at Ravenna Third Place Books.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Peter Lovesey

The author of “The Tooth Tattoo” will appear at these locations May 10: noon at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St., Seattle (206-587-5737 or seattlemystery.com); and 7 p.m. at Ravenna Third Place Books, 6504 20th Ave N.E., Seattle (206-525-2347 or thirdplacebooks.com).

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Crime seems at odds with the venerable charm and long history of Bath, England. The town is known for its curative waters — hence the name — and for its lovely old houses. Violence is relatively rare.

Nonetheless, Chief Inspector Peter Diamond of the Bath police force is kept busy enough. Case in point: “The Tooth Tattoo” (Soho Crime, 352 pp., $25), British author Peter Lovesey’s 13th police procedural starring Diamond.

Lovesey is the real deal, a seasoned and prolific pro who has written in a number of genres. The Diamond books are perhaps his best known. They’re deftly plotted, with strong characters and a good dollop of dry humor, especially the (generally) good-natured sniping among the members of his team.

Shortly after the book opens, Diamond and his sweetheart are on vacation in Vienna. While in town, they happen to walk past a makeshift memorial on a riverside bank. It was there to honor a young, female Japanese music student who had recently been murdered and dumped in the water.

On Diamond’s return to Bath, he and his team are faced with an amazing coincidence (this book is uncharacteristically heavy on amazing coincidences). Another body is found floating in a canal, with the only identifying clue being an unusual fashion accessory: the tattoo of a musical note on one tooth. When identified, the body turns out to be that of another young, female Japanese music student, also a murder victim.

Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, Lovesey relates the travails of Mel Farran, a talented viola player who freelances for orchestras and other groups. Out of the blue, Farran is approached in an enigmatic fashion by a famous string quartet. Its members had disbanded after the unexplained disappearance of the group’s viola player, but they (an eccentric bunch, to put it mildly) are regrouping and need a replacement.

Though the recruitment method is strange, the offer is irresistible. Farran joins the musicians just as they take up a plush residency at Bath Spa University.

The musicians find lodgings in private homes around town, and Farran has an agreeable bonus: the delights of the family’s teenage daughter and an ongoing flirtation with her single mother.

As the stories merge, it becomes apparent the murders and the musicians are connected. For starters, the second victim had been a fanatic follower of the quartet. Classical musicians have groupies, too.

Much of the book is taken up with long, detailed passages about making music: how players work closely together, what happens when things go right or wrong, and how great music packs a powerful emotional wallop. It’s clearly a subject close to the author’s heart, though readers not enamored with it may find these passages slow going.

But the details of the musical life serve a purpose: They help humanize the already appealing Diamond. The detective freely confesses he leans more toward Radiohead than Ravel. Nonetheless, he’s determined to learn as much as possible about classical music, in the process getting a sobering education about the realities of both a professional musician’s life and the scary side of fandom.

Adam Woog’s column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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