Tess Gerritsen unveils new novel, "The Keepsake" Sept. 9.

By Daniel Dunkle | Sep 04, 2008

Camden — I just received a press release that Camden bestselling author Tess Gerritsen is releasing her new novel, "The Keepsake" Sept. 9.

The press release included the following plot outline:

"For untold years, the perfectly preserved mummy had lain forgotten in the dusty basement of Boston’s Crispin Museum. Now its sudden rediscovery by museum staff is both a major coup and an attention-grabbing mystery. Dubbed “Madam X,” the mummy—to all appearances, an ancient Egyptian artifact—seems a ghoulish godsend for the financially struggling institution. But medical examiner Maura Isles soon discovers a macabre message hidden within the corpse—horrifying proof that this “centuries-old” relic is instead a modern-day murder victim.

"To Maura and Boston homicide detective Jane Rizzoli, the forensic evidence is unmistakable, its implications terrifying. And when the grisly remains of yet another woman are found in the hidden recesses of the museum, it becomes chillingly clear that a maniac is at large—and is now taunting them.

"Archaeologist Josephine Pulcillo’s blood runs cold when the killer’s cryptic missives are discovered, and her darkest dread becomes real when the carefully preserved corpse of yet a third victim is left in her car like a gruesome offering—or perhaps a ghastly promise of what’s to come.

"The twisted killer’s familiarity with post-mortem rituals suggests to Maura and Jane that he may have scientific expertise in common with Josephine. But only Josephine knows that her stalker shares a knowledge even more personally terrifying: details of a dark secret she had thought forever buried.

"Now Maura must summon her own dusty knowledge of ancient death traditions to unravel a murderer’s twisted endgame. And when Josephine vanishes, Maura and Jane have precious little time to derail the Archaeology Killer before he adds another chilling artifact to his monstrous collection."

Sounds creepy and I approve of creepy. Her last book was a fast-paced page-turner. I interviewed Ms. Gerritsen a while back for her last book "The Bone Garden." The following is the feature I wrote about her at the time:

Tess Gerritsen resurrects the horrors of old Boston

CAMDEN — Fans might think a tale of grave-robbers, autopsies, mysterious diseases and a horrific serial killer stalking the Boston night are all in a day’s work for Camden best-seller Tess Gerritsen, but her new novel actually is something of a departure.

“The Bone Garden,” which will be released Sept. 18 and celebrated with the author’s appearance at Camden’s Owl and Turtle bookstore, is Gerritsen’s first historical thriller.

Up until now, her medical thrillers have been set in the present day.
In a recent interview at her seaside home, Gerritsen talked about her new novel and talked a little about her future projects.

“I was preparing for a speech about the book ‘Frankenstein,’ the classic horror novel by Mary Shelley, and looking into her past found that her mother died of ‘childbed fever,’” Gerritsen said.

Digging further into the history of this disease, she learned that the filthy conditions in early nineteenth century hospitals killed as many as 25 percent of new mothers.

“Doctors would never wash their hands,” she said. “…They would be doing autopsies or dissections, and they would go straight from these really infected corpses into the maternity wards and examine women with their bare hands.”

Gerritsen was a medical doctor before she began her writing career.
“I was so fascinated about what it was like to be a doctor at that time that I thought, you know what, I want to write about that,” she said. “But everybody knows me as a thriller writer, so I guess the only way to really explore that era is to make it a thriller, instead of doing a nonfiction book.”

“The Bone Garden” offers a graphic depiction of the conditions in a Boston maternity ward in 1830 as it follows a group of medical students through their training.

“There were some hospital wards where the women were dying so fast, they were stuffing them into coffins, two to a coffin,” Gerritsen said.

“There was a description of one hospital, I think it might have been in Hungary, where …in the maternity ward, the women could look in one direction and through that open doorway was the autopsy room, and when they looked in the other direction there was a window that looked out onto the graveyard. Think about what it was like to be lying there thinking that there’s a good chance you’re going to end up there, and then there.”

The novel also tells the story of the “resurrectionists,” or the grave robbers of the era.

“I needed to explore what it was like to be a medical student, because nobody had access to corpses,” Gerritsen said.

At the time, laws prevented access to cadavers for dissection and medical research.

“Medical students were sneaking into graveyards in the middle of the night and digging up bodies,” she said.

“The horrors of that time really all had to do with medical care,” she said. “…I almost feel that I don’t need to add a horror, a thriller story, to that. It’s horrifying enough, just the reality of what went on.”

But what she does add to the story along with plot and suspense is a serial killer known as “The West End Reaper.”

When young medical student Norris Marshall finds himself a suspect in the case, he teams up with 17-year-old seamstress Rose Connolly and fellow medical student Oliver Wendell Holmes to solve the murders and clear his name.

Holmes has the distinction among the characters of having been a real person.

“The big hero of the story, at least the historical story, was Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was a very young doctor in 1830,” Gerritsen said. “He was a medical student, a very clever man, sort of a multifaceted man who ended up being known more as a literary figure because he became a writer. He always wanted to be a poet, but couldn’t make a living at it, so he became a doctor. He was so brilliant that he was observing stuff, he was paying attention, he was looking at these outbreaks and he presented a paper when he was only 34 years old, to this very distinguished medical group, and said, ‘It’s time for us to wash our hands. I think we’re responsible for it.’”

Gerritsen said the medical community responded by attacking Holmes. It was almost a decade before handwashing was seen as necessary for doctors.

“I think it’s the arrogance of doctors that really kind of struck me,” Gerritsen said. “One of the quotes that I read was from one of the physicians who said, ‘We are gentlemen, and gentlemen do not have dirty hands. How dare you say that.’ Think how many thousands of women were killed by doctors because of that attitude!”

And that arrogance of the doctors comes through in her book. In one instance she shows a doctor scolding a woman for questioning his plans to have a patient bled.

“There was even one doctor who said it was because women’s modesty was ruined by men examining them, so they died of wounded modesty,” she said.

“You were better off having your baby out in the dirty street because at least nobody had dirty hands all over you,” Gerritsen added.

However, Gerritsen said she wanted to show the good as well as the bad.
“As bad as doctors were back then, there was a certain nobility to being a physician,” she said. “If you were a good doctor, people really respected that. I think I also wanted to talk about healers in general. Of all the professions out there, that was one of the few things that could affect future generations. You could decide whether or not a family line was going to continue on just by saving a mother.”

Gerritsen said this novel required more research than her other novels, but it did not require as much study in the field of forensics.

“It’s hard to commit a crime (in the present day) without leaving a trace of yourself, without leaving something for police to follow,” she said. “In the 1800’s, there was no evidence to analyze.”

“In general, even though I use a lot of forensics, and it’s interesting to me because of the science, I personally feel that the real difficulty writing books is just trying to get into people’s heads and find out why somebody would do something so terrible, like murder,” she said.

As a young person, Gerritsen faced that question when a close friend of the family killed his sister-in-law by holding her head in the toilet. Gerritsen said she had never seen anything bad about this friend before that.

“I think it was a wakeup call to me that you really don’t recognize evil when you see it,” Gerritsen said. “That it can have so many different faces and the most mild-mannered person in a fit of anger or under the influence of somebody stronger can do anything.”

In addition to researching the history, she said she had to read a great deal of writing from the period to learn how people talked.

“You get a sense reading back then that the language was much more flowery,” she said. “People used more adjectives. They tended to exaggerate. Things that if we heard it now, we would laugh at it.”

When asked if she will write more historical thrillers, she said, “I never say never.”

“I’m just curious how people are going to take it,” the author said. “It’s so different that I’m a little concerned that my usual thriller readers are going to go ‘oh what’s all this 1800’s medicine stuff?’ but I kind of feel that a writer who keeps writing the same story over and over again is going to get stale.”

However, with “The Bone Garden” just hitting shelves this month, Gerritsen is already at work on her next novel. This one is set in the present day and features her recurring characters Medical Examiner Maura Isles and Detective Jane Rizzoli.

The working title is “Madam X,” the name of a mummy in a museum that has some secrets that may be the key to solving a modern-day murder.
Gerritsen said she is fascinated with archeology and wanted to incorporate it into her new novel.

“A good archeologist is a detective as well,” she said.

Isles and Rizzoli may someday be staples of the small screen. Gerritsen said she has just signed a contract for a possible TV series based on Rizzoli’s character.

Gerritsen said her two recurring characters have different backgrounds, and therefore different voices.

Isles is a medical examiner from California. She is not emotional. She’s a scientist.

“She’s me actually,” Gerritsen said. “I kind of feel like when she talks, you’re hearing my voice.”

Then there’s Rizzoli.

“And the cop’s voice is every female cop I’ve ever talked to,” Gerritsen said of Rizzoli. “They’re pretty tough broads.”

She has also sold film rights to her books, but so far no movies are in production.

“So often, what ends up happening is that they die in development,” she said.

She noted that three scripts were written for her novel about the space program, “Gravity.”

“Then it never went anywhere,” she said.

One bit of Tess Gerritsen trivia is that her mother, an immigrant from China, was a horror movie junkie. Gerritsen said she went with her parents to many scary movies as a child including Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

“I’ve never seen her scared at a movie, ever!” Gerritsen said of her mother.

“You pay attention to what it is that scares you,” she added of the movies. “I remember watching Stephen King’s ‘It.’ I realized that it was scary until the monster appeared. And that is true for mysteries and thrillers. As soon as the monster appears, you lose that fear.”

Gerritsen acknowledged that her writing career started with writing romance novels.

“They were romantic suspense novels,” she said. “…So I guess you could say I was always writing suspense. I wrote those because at the time I was really enjoying reading romantic suspense novels.”

She notes that romance makes up a huge part of the publishing market. She said many of the women now on the New York Times bestseller list cut their teeth writing romance.

“Now they’ve become respectable,” she said.

“It’s a place to learn about the business and a place where a lot of women build their craft. I don’t think there’s an equivalent for men.”
Gerritsen grew up in San Diego, Calif. She left her medical practice to raise her children and concentrate on her writing.

All six of Gerritsen’s medical thrillers have appeared on the New York Times bestseller lists.

She lives in Camden with her husband, Jacob. They have two adult sons, Adam and Josh, who went through the Camden school system. Both now live in upstate N.Y.

But perhaps the greatest revelation Gerritsen offers comes when you bring up her science fiction novel, “Gravity.”

“Oh yeah, I’m an old Trekkie,” she said and laughed. “At Halloween, I used to dress up as…” Suddenly she stops and waves her hand. “You know, anyway, it’s stupid. I used to have Spock ears too.”

For more information, go to www.tessgerritsen.com.

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