Tess Gerritsen Essay - Critical Essays

Tess Tom


By 1996, Tess Gerritsen had joined fellow physician-writers Robin Cook and Michael Palmer in the emerging field of the medical thriller, mining recent developments in medical and technological research in search of frightening possibilities for fictional development. The unprecedented success of Harvest created a ready audience for the three novels to follow, also featuring strong female physicians as principal characters. Like Cook’s Coma (1977), Harvest deals with a black market in human organs; in Harvest, however, the mobsters are Russian and one of the American conspirators is quite literally in bed with the increasingly inquisitive young doctor who nearly loses her own life at the hands of her supposed lover, with her liver to be transplanted, as soon as she uncovers the conspiracy. Like Cook, Gerritsen seeks out and exploits the most frightening possibilities, from bioterrorism and mad cow disease to teen violence sparked by a meningitis epidemic.

With The Surgeon, at first glance merely the fifth of her medical thrillers, Gerritsen moved to merge medical thriller with police procedural as her focus shifted from prions and microbes to psychopaths and serial murderers. At first, the central character appears to be Dr. Catherine Cordell, a surgeon who has recently moved to Boston from Georgia in the aftermath of a brutal attempt on her life during which she shot and killed her assailant. As the novel begins, Dr. Cordell is less than pleased to be confronted by homicide detectives Thomas Moore and Jane Rizzoli, who are pursuing possible connections between a current spate of rape-murders in the Boston area and the attack in Georgia more than two years earlier. After all, she reasons, the man is dead and she can prove as much. Rizzoli, however, proves to have the tenacity of a bulldog as she pursues leads that point to a copycat or perhaps a disciple of the dead killer.

Cordell falls slowly and cautiously in love with Detective Moore, whom she will eventually marry. Gerritsen, meanwhile, was laying the groundwork for a new fictional universe centered in Boston and featuring the mercurial Jane Rizzoli: “She wore grim dark suits that did not flatter her petite frame, and her hair was a careless mop of black curls. She was who she was, and either you accepted it or you could just go to hell.” Gerritsen’s subsequent novels would follow Rizzoli through a series of adventures and interactions with a variety of continuing characters. In The Apprentice, Dr. Ashford Tierney, the aging medical examiner featured in The Surgeon, has retired after choosing his own successor, a rather mysterious still-young woman by the name of Maura Isles. Within a year after assuming the position, Dr. Isles has become known to law enforcement and the press as the Queen of the Dead, owing not only to her line of work but also to her pale skin, black hair and dress, red lipstick, and calm demeanor. All that is known of her background at that point is that Tierney hired her away from a faculty position at Gerritsen’s own alma mater, the University of California’s San Francisco campus.

The Apprentice also marks the first appearance of Special Agent Gabriel Dean, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), who arouses Rizzoli’s ire by invading her turf with an investigation in progress, claiming intersection with a case of his own. Another recurring character making a debut is Dr. Joyce O’Donnell, a forensic neuropsychiatrist who has grown rich and perhaps infamous as an expert witness for the defense of serial killers. Indeed, it is O’Donnell’s bizarre fascination with her subjects that causes Rizzoli and Dean to start working as a team, instead of acting as adversaries.

As the Rizzoli and Isles series progresses and develops, readers learn that Isles has left not only her job but also her marriage to Victor Banks, a physician practicing with a worldwide charity known as One Earth. A strong mutual attraction reaching its peak at the end of The Apprentice leaves Rizzoli bearing FBI agent Dean’s child, with a proposal and marriage to follow. O’ Donnell, meanwhile, will pursue her morbid fascination with serial killers until she herself is murdered, and Isles, still recovering from a brief reunion with Victor Banks, will find herself strongly, and repeatedly, attracted to a Roman Catholic priest named Daniel Brophy. Throughout the series, the lives and careers of Rizzoli and Isles continue to overlap and interact, providing two distinct viewpoints for Gerritsen’s third-person narrative.

In several of the novels, Gerritsen inserts sections of first-person narrative, often in italics and most often to convey the inner musings of a perpetrator. Chilling in effect, such passages approach the inverted mystery model but are offset by the balanced narrative of the two female protagonists. In Body Double (2004), Isles, who knows only that she was adopted, finds herself examining the body of the twin from whom she was separated at birth, beginning an investigation that leads both Isles and Rizzoli down a twisted path of depravity, with their nemesis O’Donnell savoring each new discovery. Thereafter, Isles will have to live with the knowledge that she was born to the near-incestuous union of two murderers who happened to be first cousins. In The Mephisto Club (2006), Gerritsen carries the notion of the “bad seed” even further, tracing its origins back at least as far as the apocryphal Book of Enoch and its description of the Nephilim, “fallen angels who mated with human women.” On balance, The Sinner (2003) and Vanish (2005) are the weakest of the Rizzoli and Isles novels: Overplotted to the point of implausibility, they serve mainly to help author and reader alike in “connecting the dots” that link both women’s lives.

The Apprentice

In The Apprentice, with Warren Hoyt, the serial killer known as the Surgeon, safely behind bars, Jane Rizzoli and her fellow detectives find themselves tracking an apparent copycat. Unlike Hoyt, however, who murdered women alone at home, the new perpetrator appears to target couples, binding the husbands and forcing them to watch the torture of their wives before killing the men. The wives have all vanished, leaving the husband’s corpse as evidence that crimes have been committed. After consultation with forensic...

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