Bestselling author Tess Gerritsen talks about her latest Rizzoli & Isles medical thriller, The Killing Place.
The night before I am to meet Tess Gerritsen at the Balmoral in Edinburgh, her publicist texts me to say that they are on a “smog schedule” so could I meet them at Gerritsen’s hotel instead? I agree, although I have no idea what a smog schedule is. Some kind of industry insider code? Or is Gerritsen, who will be travelling on to Newcastle after our interview, concerned about poor visibility affecting the next leg of her journey? This is Scotland, after all.
The answer is neither. The apologetic publicist explains the following day that they are in fact on a tight schedule and the word mix-up was the result of texting while tired.
Gerritsen herself is bright and lively when she meets me at the hotel reception. Although she only arrived in the UK from her native Maine a few days earlier, she has miraculously avoided jet-lag and was on top form the previous evening, entertaining an audience at the Edinburgh International Book Festival by recounting the real life incidents that have inspired medical thrillers. Dinner conversations, news stories and even the antics of her sons have given Gerritsen the glimpse of the macabre she needs to spin out a terrifying plot. “I go for the dark stuff. I’m always looking for things that are disturbing because I think that people are interested in those topics.”
The inspiration for The Killing Place came from declassified U.S. federal government reports about an incident in the sixties where thousands of sheep were found dead in a valley. Gerritsen was shocked by the reports because she realised the same thing could happen again to an entire city. She knew she had hit on the idea for a great story because “the emotion around the inciting incident was like a punch in the gut.”
The Killing Place is the eighth book to feature police detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Dr Maura Isles. Gerritsen turns the traditional relationship between the crime solving duo on its head in this novel when Maura goes missing, leaving Jane to track her down.
After the GPS leads Maura and her travelling companions along a road that is closed in winter, they find themselves stranded in the mountains during a snow storm. They think they have been saved when they stumble upon an isolated village but it is soon clear that something sinister has happened in the tiny settlement of Kingdom Come: the houses have been abandoned, meals left untouched on kitchen tables and cars still parked in garages. With nowhere else to go, the group sets up shelter in one of the deserted houses but it isn’t long before they realise that there is someone out there in the woods, watching them. Days later, a burned out car is found with four bodies inside, one of which is identified as Maura Isles. Jane Rizzoli is determined to prove the identification wrong and to find out what really happened to her friend.
“I think that the best mysteries are when the character has an emotional reason to want the case to be solved,” Gerritsen explains. “What sort of creeped me out about this idea was the abandoned houses and the meals left on the table. I like to take something that looks like a horror story on the surface but in fact there’s a logical explanation for it.”
As with all of her medical thrillers, The Killing Place has its share of gory drama which Gerritsen’s background in medicine left her more than equipped to deal with. (She trained and worked as a physician before becoming a full time writer.) “This particular book did not have a lot of research involved. I went online to find cases of GPS disasters. There have been a lot of people who have had accidents or who have died, in the US especially, because we have a lot of very solitary places, a lot of wilderness. There have been people who have been stuck in the snow for weeks because they’ve driven down a seasonal road.”
The Killing Place sees the introduction of two new characters, troubled teenage runaway Rat and his dog Bear, who Gerritsen reveals will be making a comeback in a future novel. “Rat and Bear are going to be more a part of Maura’s life in the future. The next book is not going to have them but I think in the one after that I may show them at their new school.”
Update – 11th Jan 2011: According to an article in the Bookseller, The Killing Place is now number 1 in the Official UK Top 50 books.