This week’s guest at Scene of the Crime needs little introduction to crime and mystery fans. Tess Gerritsen, former physician, is the author of eight books in the popular Rizzoli & Isles series featuring homicide detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles, books that inspired the TNT television series. She has also written bestselling stand-alone medical thrillers such as The Bone Garden and Harvest, as well as a number of romantic suspense novels that she began her writing career with.
Of her most recent Rizzoli & Isles series installment, Ice Cold, the Chicago Tribune noted that Gerritsen “has an imagination that allows her to conjure up depths of human behavior do dark and frightening that she makes Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft seem like goody-two-shoes.” Salon.com noted that the pacing of that novel was done with “surgical precision,” while the Cleveland Plain-Dealer declared it “Amazing . . . another winner.”
My Rizzoli & Isles series is set primarily in Boston, which is a four-hour drive from where I actually live in Maine. Here in Maine, we have one of the lowest murder rates in the nation, so it’s not a very believable place for multiple murder plots. If I were to place a thriller series here, it would start to feel about as realistic as “Murder, She Wrote,” where eventually you’d have to kill off the entire population. When I wrote the first book in the series, The Surgeon (about a serial killer), I decided to set it in the closest metropolitan area where you might actually find multiple murders. I drive down to Boston quite often, and have developed a few contacts there within Boston PD.
What things about Boston make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Not only does Boston have fascinating history and landmarks, it also has a great mix of wealthy neighborhoods and gritty neighborhoods. Geographically it’s a compact city, yet it has distinct neighborhoods, some of the world’s best hospitals and universities, a harbor, a financial district, and a Chinatown. So there are any number of settings that work for thrillers.
Did you consciously set out to use Boston as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I try my best to capture the character of Boston, but I have the disadvantage of not having grown up there. So to be honest, I’m writing as an outsider, still trying to understand the essential Bostonian character.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
Since I don’t live in Boston and can’t fall back on a childhood there, I resort to research. Whether it’s maps, site visits, or conversations with the locals, I’m relying on physical resources, and not emotional experiences, to come up with descriptions. I do try to work in specific details when I can — for instance, for my next book (set in Chinatown), I walked every square foot of that neighborhood, took dozens of photos, and ate at just about every restaurant there. I consider dining out a very essential part of research!
How do Rizzoli and Isles interact with their surroundings? Are they natives, blow-ins, reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitants, cynical about it, boosters? And conversely, how does the setting affect your protagonists?
Jane Rizzoli, my homicide detective, is a native of Revere, a neighborhood just north of Boston. She knows Boston. It’s in her blood, the only home she’s ever known, so of course she’s attached to it in a love-hate sort of way. Maura Isles, the medical examiner, comes from San Francisco so she’s never going to feel quite at home in Boston and she’s always questioning whether she belongs in a place that’s colder, ruder, and rougher than where she comes from.
I know the books sell pretty well in Boston, and every so often I’ll get a delighted note from a reader who’s a “Revere girl” and loves the fact she grew up in the same neighborhood as Jane Rizzoli.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
Once I had someone walking east when she should have been walking west. What’s irritating is that I’ve walked that street myself and knew better, but somehow I still got it wrong. I’m sure there’ve been other mistakes, but haven’t heard about them yet!
Of the novels you have set in Boston, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place?
My favorite of all my Boston novels is The Bone Garden because it’s set in 1830’s Boston, during an epidemic of childbed fever. The setting is crucial in this story because it features an historical figure named Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was a Boston medical student that year. Holmes would later go on to write a groundbreaking scientific paper about the cause of childbed fever, the first American physician to link the disease to the unclean hands of doctors. So it was absolutely necessary for the story to be set there, and in that particular year.
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
I’ve always loved books with a strong sense of place. I think of Gone with the Wind, and its loving descriptions of Atlanta. Or Lonesome Dove, which so beautifully captured the American west. Those are both books that inspire me to try harder to bring setting into my stories.
The next Rizzoli & Isles book is The Silent Girl, which will be released this coming July. It’s about a murder in Boston’s Chinatown, where a vital clue – monkey hairs found on the victim — leads Jane to wonder if the killing is somehow linked to an ancient Chinese legend known as the Monkey King.
Thanks again Tess for taking the time to chat with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Tess Gerritsen, visit her homepage.