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Book Review

Medical mysteries add twists to historical thriller

Tess Gerritsen sets her latest story in 1830s Boston. Tess Gerritsen sets her latest story in 1830s Boston. (Tom Herde/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Irene Sege
November 14, 2007

In her 11th medical thriller, "The Bone Garden," Maine physician Tess Gerritsen turns from the exploits of Boston detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles to give readers a historical thriller about a serial killer - known as the West End Reaper - loose on the streets of 1830s Boston.

The tale of crime from a bygone era emerges as the parallel plot to the modern-day story of a divorcee who finds human bones buried in her Weston yard. Isles appears briefly, but her presence is not essential to Gerritsen's story. Soon the protagonist, teacher Julia Hamill, is spending much of her summer break in Maine going through old letters and other papers with the octogenarian relative of her house's previous owner.

Gerritsen has won praise for her prior medical thrillers, and her previous effort, "The Mephisto Club," was a bestseller. "The Bone Garden," however, does not quite come together. The parallel stories are uneven, with the greatest weight going to the 19th-century murder mystery. The modern-day tale is part narrative device and part love story, but it isn't hook enough to justify its existence, and the plot around Julia's life is barely developed, leaving the reader to wonder if it is necessary at all.

The historical murder mystery fares better, but the suspense sometimes lags. This plot centers on an Irish immigrant, Rose Connolly, and on a group of medical students studying at the hospital where Rose's sister, Aurnia, died in childbirth. Aurnia's husband is a brute with little interest in raising the baby girl, so Rose takes charge of her niece, Margaret, and is determined to keep her from mysterious parties equally bent on snatching her. Medical student Norris Marshall, a poor farm boy from Belmont out of place among his gentleman classmates, takes an interest in Rose's plight. Along the way, people associated with the young aunt turn up dead.

Norris is earnest and idealistic, admirable traits, to be sure, but a tad boring in a hero. Rose is plucky, panicked, devastatingly poor, and a good deal more interesting than Norris. Gerritsen also includes a fictionalized Oliver Wendell Holmes, the physician and author who was the father of the famed jurist, in the group of medical students, and that adds some spice.

Gerritsen, as always, puts her medical training to ghoulish use in her descriptions of both the murders and the dismayingly frequent deaths in childbirth in the hospital's maternity ward. These vivid descriptions are not for the faint-hearted.

Indeed, despite the book's shortcomings, the medical practices that Gerritsen depicts are fascinating. In addition to the well-drawn scenes in the hospital, she takes readers on grisly journeys with a procurer of cadavers, to be used in the training of medical students. Here, too, she calls on her experience as a physician to render situations in excruciatingly horrific detail. Boston readers will also appreciate her description of the mid-19th-century city and its environs.

"The Bone Garden" ends with some neat plot twists, both in the murder mystery and the mystery of maternal deaths. Much as readers might wish that Gerritsen had sharpened the thriller and done more with the contemporary story, they will come away from the book with an appreciation of the evolution of medical practice.

Irene Sege is a member of the Globe staff.

The Bone Garden
By Tess Gerritsen Ballantine, 370 pp., $25.95

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