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Posts Tagged ‘Tess Gerritsen’

Serpent GardenSo I discovered this new-to-me author last week: Judith Merkle Riley. Her historical novel, Serpent Garden, is set in Tudor England and France, and it’s an absolute delight. Riley juggles multiple points of view, a complex mixture of historical fact and conjecture, ingenious details of her period setting, and a whiff of the supernatural. All this plus an engaging first-person narrator whose love story bounces along happily.

After reading the first part of Serpent Garden, I did what I usually do when I find an author who grabs my interest—I went to Amazon to find what other books she had available. There were six more novels, three of them a YA trilogy. Interesting. I wondered what she was currently working on and looked for her website. And this is where things started to get, well, strange. Her website consisted of a single page, a list of her six novels with links to Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Given the number of positive reviews Riley’s books had from major sources like Kirkus, I was amazed. Why didn’t she have a more developed website?
Then I happened to glance at the short bio for Riley that was posted on Google. The most important information was right there at the top, her birth date and her death date. Riley died in 2010. I had two reactions to this news: I was saddened, first of all. But then, selfishly, I was stricken by the thought that six novels was all we’d ever have.

We readers are voracious, and we always want more. Once we discover a novelist we like, we keep demanding product. Some writers, like Grace Burrowes, are remarkably productive, giving us book after book to feed our habits. Some, like Susan Elizabeth Phillips, work more slowly, so that each book becomes a kind of event.

And some authors simply opt out. Julia Ross wrote wonderfully ornate historical novels a few years ago, including The Seduction, Clandestine, and Games of Pleasure. But after several years of turning out one novel after another, she hit the wall. She simply couldn’t write anymore, as she herself explains. Another of my favorite writers, Judith Ivory, simply disappeared after a bout of ill health.

So are we readers at fault when writers go missing? Nope. But it might be a good idea occasionally to think about those writers whose books you depend on. Maybe they need a little encouragement, or even a little gratitude. So please Sherry Thomas, Joanna Bourne, Loretta Chase, and Mary Balogh keep writing—I love everything you’ve done. Please Anna Cowan, write a second book: Untamed was awesome. Please Karen Rose and Tess Gerritsen keep bringing those thrillers out, even though writing them must take a toll. And oh, Jane Haddam, please don’t stop. I need my Gregor Demarkian fix each year.

And Judith Merkle Riley I wish I’d found you a few years ago. I really wish I could have told you what a wonderful writer you really are. Now all I can do is leave a review on Amazon and feel sad.

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ghostI’m the author of three ghost romances (Medium Well, Medium Rare, and Happy Medium, thanks for asking), so I know something about scariness. But this post isn’t about my books—I’ve already posted quite a bit about them, like this, this, and this. This post is about Tess Gerritsen’s books, which are some of the scariest I know.

However, Gerrtisen’s stuff rarely gets cited for its scare quotient at this time of year, perhaps largely because she writes thrillers rather than paranormal novels. Still, page for page, I find her books a lot more creepy than, say, the average vampire story. Gerritsen’s villains are serial killers, but they’re frequently serial killers with a twist. There’s the murderer in The Keepsake who’s obsessed with ancient methods of preserving the dead. And the murderer in The Mephisto Club who uses bits and snatches from the Apocrypha to give his crimes a particularly shuddery twist. And the murderer in Last To Die who wipes out entire families.

Along with the murderers, Gerritsen presents potential victims, sometimes writing parts of the story in first person to reflect their points of view. These victims most frequently know who’s after them but for complicated reasons they resist turning to the police for help. They also become Gerritsen’s major conveyors of dread—they know just how terrible the fate is that could await them and they’re doing their best to avoid it.

For a long time I tried to avoid it too. I read a couple of Gerritsen’s books (The Apprentice was one of them as I recall), and I found myself placing her in the same category as Law and Order: SVU and Criminal Minds, shows I dislike intensely because of their obsession with the victimization of women. There’s something deeply disturbing about women’s suffering and terror being held up for display, both on television and in books, and since Gerritsen’s victims are almost entirely female she might seem to fit into that category.

But when I went back and read a couple of her other books (Silent Girl and Last To Die, for the record), I began to see other dimensions to her work that hadn’t really registered before. First, the murderers frequently target women, but the women they target aren’t necessarily helpless. They may be on the run, but they know what needs to be done and they do it. In other words, they don’t simply surrender to terror or sit and wait to be rescued. They fight. And then the murderers usually do, in fact, have motivation for their murders. That motivation may be twisted in the extreme, but they don’t just kill for fun.

Gerritsen has two female heroines, Maura Isles and Jane Rizzoli,* and these two are the ones most likely to confront the Big Bad, but the victim Gerritsen focuses on confronts him too, and lives to tell the tale.

There are whiffs of the supernatural in Gerritsen. Her killers are so diabolical that they frequently seem to be from another species, and there’s a continuing plot about a group of demon hunters, The Mephisto Foundation, that actually believes that’s true. But neither Rizzoli nor Isles agrees with them. The Mephistos are simply presented as an alternative explanation.

It’s not exactly female empowerment, but I’d argue it’s a form of subversion. You come out of a Gerritsen novel shaken up by the evil that the characters encounter, but also reassured that they can triumph over it, and triumph through human means. So you get both the scary and the resolution of the scary. And isn’t that sort of what Halloween is all about?

 

*Yeah, Gerritsen’s novels are the basis for the Rizzoli and Isles television series, but the novels and the series are as different as, well, night and day. The novels are dark and moody. The series isn’t. Even if you don’t much like Rizzoli and Isles (and I don’t), you may like Gerritsen’s books (and I do).

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BonesIt’s always interesting to see your favorite books turned into television series, but it can also be troubling. The troubling part is what I’m thinking about at the moment, particularly as it applies to the television versions of two favorite book series: Bones and Rizzoli and Isles.

Both shows are based on long-running book series, by Kathy Reichs and Tess Gerritsen respectively. Both Reichs and Gerritsen have science backgrounds—Reichs is a forensic anthropologist and Gerritsen is an MD. And both series feature female scientists as lead characters. Unfortunately, both series seem to feel very nervous about seeing those female scientists as anything but freaks.

Let’s take Bones, for example. The lead character of the television series is Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist at the “Jeffersonian Institution.” Temperance is brilliant, but she’s totally without people skills. Her friends and colleagues must continually correct her when she runs roughshod over people’s feelings or misunderstands simple human interactions. In fact, there have been times when Dr. Brennan has seemed so out of tune with reality that I’ve suspected she suffers from Asperger syndrome.

Now look at the Kathy Reichs books on which Bones is based. Again the central character is named Temperance Brennan, and again she’s a brilliant forensic anthropologist, but there the similarities end. This Temperance works as a consultant to police departments in Montreal and North Carolina. She’s divorced and has an adult daughter. More importantly, she had no particular problems interacting with the public. She works effectively with both her fellow scientists and her police contacts; in fact, she’s occasionally more skillful in talking to witnesses than they are. She’s as well acquainted with social mores as any other person she meets and she can toss off pop culture references with the best of them. In other words, she’s a normal woman who happens to be a very intelligent scientist.

Why am I making a point about this? Possibly because the difference between the television and book versions of Temperance underlines something that’s both troubling and annoying: the tendency of television to portray female scientists as non-functioning human beings. If Bones was the only example of this tendency, it might count as an anomaly—but it isn’t. Maura Isles in Tess Gerritsen’s books has several problems, but being unable to function in normal society isn’t one of them. Yet the Maura Isles in Rizzoli and Isles is another example of someone who doesn’t quite understand how the “common folk” operate—her partner, the more “down to earth” Jane Rizzoli, is constantly correcting Maura’s confused idea of how the man on the street thinks and talks. To be fair, male scientists in television series sometimes suffer from the same treatment, as witness the nerdish physicists on Big Bang Theory. But male scientists can also come across as “normal”—thus Hodgins on Bones may have a few hang-ups regarding conspiracy theories, but he can communicate with others and seems to have a solid grip on the way the world functions. And back in the days when CSI was an interesting series rather than a train wreck, Gil Grissom was clearly in command of his facts.

The problem here is that television lags behind books when it comes to the portrayal of strong, intelligent, functioning heroines. And if anyone wants to argue that Temperance needs some flaws to make her interesting, I’d point out that Reichs’ original Temperance is a recovering alcoholic who slips off the wagon at least once in the series. That’s a realistic flaw. Being too smart for your own good isn’t.

So I’m glad to see television production companies looking at book series for inspiration, but I’d like to see them go farther beyond the mere outlines of character than they’re using at the moment. Given the popularity of the books by both Reichs and Gerritsen, the reading public seems ready for intelligent heroines who can manage to hold a normal conversation. I look forward to the day when television is too.

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