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Death becomes her

Author's grisly novels thrill women

CAMDEN, Maine -- What is ``women's fiction"? Warm and wonderful stories about love, soap operas about dysfunctional families, uplifting tales of redemption and the indomitable human spirit?

Those are the stereotypes, to be sure, and true to an extent. The vast annual outpouring of romance novels from Harlequin Enterprises is openly marketed as women's fiction. But in 10 thrillers over the past decade, Tess Gerritsen of Maine has found an audience of women with a different taste.

``I had a third-grade teacher say to me at a reading, `I want more serial killers and twisted sex,' " said Gerritsen, also a physician, in an interview on her porch overlooking Penobscot Bay. ``When I hear from readers, the ones who say, `You go over the edge,' are usually men."

There's little sex in Gerritsen's books, but there's plenty of blood, murder, torture, dismemberment, and evil unleashed. Her new forensic thriller, ``The Mephisto Club," will be released Sept. 12 in a 200,000-copy first printing and, like its predecessors, it's not for the squeamish. It features a decapitated body, excised eyelids, a throat-slashing, and oceans of spurting blood. At one crime scene, even a cop heaves her lunch.

It's all part of the Gerritsen atmosphere, developed especially in her last six books, featuring Boston police detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles. Her series characters are female, and her audience is predominantly female. Each of her last five best-selling books has sold more copies than its predecessor, and there are now 3 million Tess Gerritsen novels in print. Her success appears to show that, when it comes to mayhem, women may have stronger stomachs than men.

The word ``thriller" has many subthemes: natural disaster, war, international intrigue a la James Bond, science gone wrong (as in ``Jurassic Park"). Gerritsen's books are usually classified as medical thrillers (she gives seminars for doctors who want to write such books, but says most doctors can't succeed at it because they don't read fiction). However, the Rizzoli-Isles books are not about medicine or hospitals. They feature anatomy, physiology, ghastly violations of the human body, and forensic reasoning and investigation, much like the TV series ``CSI."

``Women do seem to go for `CSI,' with its very graphic autopsy scenes," Gerritsen said. ``I have heard from other writers how bloodthirsty little old ladies can be."

Gerritsen did start out writing conventional women's romances for Harlequin, until she decided to approach the bleeding heart from a different direction. Her interest in the hair-raising started young. She was born in San Diego to a Chinese immigrant mother and second-generation Chinese-American father. Her mother's English was limited, but she loved horror movies.

``My brother and I were dragged to some really scary movies," Gerritsen said, ``and I grew up understanding the whole structure of horror novels and movies. The concept of being scared for amusement, of unintended consequences being far worse than you could ever imagine."

Though she had loved to write since childhood, she also loved science. She graduated from Stanford University in 1975, Phi Beta Kappa, with a degree in anthropology, went on to medical school, and became an internist. She married Jacob Gerritsen, also a doctor, and they moved to Hawaii, where their two sons (now grown) were born. Being a physician was stressful work, she says, more so with two young children. She found escape in reading romance novels, then decided to write one. It was published in 1987 by Harlequin, and she wrote several more.

By that time, she was feeling claustrophobic in Hawaii. She and Jacob visited coastal Maine on vacation, loved it, and in 1990 moved to Camden. ``I can walk down to the town landing," she said, ``and hear people say, `I could live here.' That's how it was with us." Three years ago they bought the shingled house with the broad porch on a secluded site 75 feet from the bay.

She never got her Maine medical license. ``My husband was going to practice [medicine]," she said. ``We made this agreement that I was going to focus on my writing to see how far I could take it. But it wasn't a great living -- with Harlequin maybe you'll make $10,000 per book."

In 1996 she published ``Harvest," the first of her thrillers. It concerns Russian orphans transported to the United States, where they are killed and their organs sold for transplants. Apart from the thriller aspect, the book is full of explicit anatomy and bladework, a Gerritsen hallmark. Overnight the paperback romance writer was on The New York Times hardcover bestseller list, and began the one-book-per-year sequence that has drawn a growing audience.

Linda Marrow, Gerritsen's longtime editor at Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, says the grisly details in ``The Mephisto Club" and previous books are there for good dramatic reasons.

``It's not that they are not disgusting," Marrow said. ``It's that she is not cynical; it never feels gratuitous. There are writers who, in their use of graphic detail, are trying to be disturbing and grotesque, and take it so far that you lose the strand of the story. In Tess's books, it's always apt to the story."

Most of the mayhem is offstage, to be sure. ``A lot of people say, `You write such violent books,' " said Gerritsen, 53, ``but you never see the violence. You see people doing their jobs: The cop, the medical examiner, looking at the spattered blood and saying, `This is what happened in this room.' " Besides ghastly murders, ``The Mephisto Club" includes arcane knowledge and satanic rituals, a blend of the demonic and the genetic. There is love, too: A main character has a romance with a Catholic priest.

Marrow says that while women are Gerritsen's main audience, her male readers are increasing. Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles function in male-dominated settings, she points out. ``She has tremendous logic," said Marrow. ``Maura isn't a chilly person, though she gives the appearance of a chilly personality, and handles things logically. Even Rizzoli is sort of a man's woman, working hard at not being seen as weak by male colleagues. All of that logic comes straight from Tess."

Now firmly rooted Downeast, Gerritsen seems the least ghoulish person imaginable. Until recently she played violin in a local chamber group, and Celtic jam sessions are held at the house monthly. She laughs heartily and often, though she says that in posing for book-jacket photos she is always cautioned against smiling. (In the photo for ``The Mephisto Club," she stands by a misty lake in a long black coat, trimmed with a red scarf, scowling deeply.)

The novel's theme of evildoers hidden in plain sight, with a genetic predisposition for evil, may well reflect the terrors of the present age. When you put down the book, however, it's a comfort that there's no blood spattered on the walls.

``There is a feeling today of living in anxious and uncertain times," said Marrow. ``At times like that, it's comforting to read a story about a boogeyman who meets his end. It's very controllable. It's like the fairy tale you read over again. You know that Snow White will escape the hunter and not be murdered by her stepmother."

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.

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