Tess Gerritsen’s books: Crime, with persistent thrills

“I can get two-thirds of the way into a book and not know who the bad guy is,” says best-selling author Tess Gerritsen. She appears Thursday for the Bee Book Club.
“I can get two-thirds of the way into a book and not know who the bad guy is,” says best-selling author Tess Gerritsen. She appears Thursday for the Bee Book Club. Blackarchives

When Tess Gerritsen left Atlanta on her way home to Camden, Maine, she worried about flying into the aftermath of what had been dubbed “Winter Storm Juno,” which plowed into the Northeast in late January.

“I was lucky,” she said by phone from her Boston hotel room, the day after her plane had landed. “The blizzard was just over when I arrived. ... I’m driving home tomorrow to see what the damage is.”

The drama was just another bump taken in stride by world traveler Gerritsen, 61, a physician who left her practice in internal medicine to pursue a career in fiction. The award-winning New York Times best-selling author (250 million books sold) is widely known for her 11-title “Rizzoli and Isles” series, which inspired an ongoing TNT cable-network “cop drama.” Her new title in that franchise, “Die Again,” is the Bee Book Club’s choice for February (Ballantine, $27, 330 pages).

The action shifts between Boston and Africa, where medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles and homicide detective Jane Rizzoli are on another roller-coaster case. A big-game hunter/taxidermist has been slaughtered in his home, and the valuable pelt of a rare leopard stolen. The key to finding the killer could be in Africa, where a few years earlier a homicidal maniac had murdered all but one of the tourists on a safari. Could the sole survivor of that massacre have any leads to the killer, who may now be stalking the streets of Boston?

“I got the idea when my husband and I joined a safari in South Africa,” she said. “We were standing in a beautiful clearing when a leopard just walked out. Luckily, our bush guide put his body between us and the cat, and the cat walked back into the bushes.”

Shaken, the party climbed back into the jeep and the guide drove off. “Fifty yards farther along, we almost hit a lion,” Gerritsen recalled. “Then in another 100 yards was a pit viper on the side of the road. So, within a very short distance, there were three things that could have killed us.

“I came away thinking, ‘In the bush, you really need somebody you trust,’” she said. “As a thriller writer, I always pay attention to what could go wrong, and I thought, ‘What if we trusted the wrong person? What if the guy who picked us up at the remote airstrip (to begin the safari) was not the guy who was supposed to be there, and the most dangerous creature in the bush turns out to be on two legs?’”

After a series of close calls, Rizzoli and Isles discover the killer’s identity, but barely in time. Of course, they thrive on sharing such tense scenarios. They’re professionals, longtime colleagues and close friends, but each carries her own share of emotional baggage.

“They’re completely different personalities,” Gerritsen said. “Jane is tough, smart and aggressive, an outsider who has to work harder than (her male colleagues). Maura is me. I really channel myself into her personality. She has a science background, is logical, tries to find an explanation for everything and looks on the dark side a little bit.”

Maura is also a loner, almost a recluse. “Well, my neighbors don’t see me for days on end,” said Gerritsen with a chuckle. “ I am very happy being by myself.”

Who would she invite to dinner – Jane or Maura? “Jane might be a lot more fun, but Maura would be more interesting.”

The TNT cable network liked both of them enough to premiere the “Rizzoli & Isles” series in 2010. Angie Harmon as Jane and Sasha Alexander as Maura will return for an 18-episode sixth season this summer. “The big news is that the series is going into syndication,” Gerritsen said. “I never imagined it would be the success it is.”

What’s Gerritsen’s role in the series? Consultant? Co-writer? “I don’t have one; they have their own team of writers who take the characters on the story arcs they determine,” she said. “They don’t really need me. They work in their universe, and I work in mine.”

Still, it must be strange seeing the “living” versions of characters she created on the page. “It is, because I have my own mental image of them. For one thing, in my mind they’re very ordinary-looking women and not goddesses, but that’s the way television is.”

Writing and medicine

Gerritsen knew she wanted to be “a storyteller” as a child, and wrote throughout high school and college. “But my dad told me I couldn’t make a living in the creative arts, so I went to medical school,” she said. “I was writing stories even when I was a resident.”

Gerritsen studied anthropology at Stanford University (she’s fascinated with archaeology and Egyptology) and later got an M.D. at UC San Francisco. She was an intern at a Honolulu hospital when she took maternity leave and, mostly out of boredom, began reading romantic-suspense novels. Hmm, she thought, I can do that. She wrote eight of her own between 1985 and 1994.

When she and her husband, since-retired physician Jacob Gerritsen, moved to Maine in 1990, Gerritsen gave up her medical practice to spend time with their two sons and write full time, segueing from romance to medical thrillers (“Harvest,” “Life Support,” “Bloodstream,” “The Bone Garden”). She also wrote a screenplay that became “Adrift,” a 1993 made-for-TV movie starring Kate Jackson.

The current ongoing drama in Gerritsen’s real life is her $10 million lawsuit against Warner Bros., in which she charges the movie studio “breached a 1999 film-rights deal.”

Her medical thriller “Gravity,” published in 1999, was on track to become a movie until the project was abandoned in 2002. Then in 2013 came the Sandra Bullock-George Clooney blockbuster film “Gravity.” It was based on a screenplay by someone who had been closely associated with Gerritsen’s original “Gravity” movie project. The similarities between the two properties were greater than coincidence, Gerritsen reasoned, so she filed suit.

A detailed explanation of the issue appears on her website blog, In part it says, “Both Ms. Gerritsen’s novel and the film are set in orbital space and feature a female medical doctor/astronaut who is stranded alone aboard the International Space Station after a series of disasters kills the rest of the crew. Both detail the astronaut’s struggle to survive (after being) left adrift in her space suit. ... Both are called ‘Gravity.’”

Where does the lawsuit stand now? “Warner Brothers filed a motion to dismiss it, so we’re waiting for the court to rule on that motion,” she said simply. “It’s been months, but that’s the way justice rolls.”

An author’s process

Turning to the topic of daily writing, Gerritsen eats a light breakfast and then sits in her office to turn out four first-draft pages a day, about 1,000 words. “I write in longhand to keep the forward motion going,” she explained. “Otherwise, if I see it on the computer screen I have an urge to edit it again and again.”

Belying her organized, scientific mien, she doesn’t plot her books before beginning work. “Which means I write myself into a lot of blind alleys,” she said. “I can get two-thirds of the way into a book and not know who the bad guy is. It’s a chaotic, painful and scary way of doing it. But I’ve tried plotting ahead of time, and the end result always feels a little dead. ”

How does she deal with those “blind alleys”? “I do things that give my mind enough time to stew over what the answers might be,” she said. “I lay on the couch, sit in the bathtub, take walks, go on long drives.”

Gerritsen has imagined many grisly scenes on the page and surely has a clue about what attracts readers to crime fiction in general.

“Part of it is the mystery aspect,” she said. “Crime readers are really smart people who like the puzzle of it. Also, particularly for women, we feel really vulnerable in this society, and (crime fiction) allows us a safe way to experience danger, to hear about the monsters who live among us, but know that everything will probably turn out all right.”

Gerritsen is an avid gardener, plays the fiddle and loves to travel. “I get so many ideas from traveling,” she said. “You just have to follow your curiosity, because you never know what’s going to pop up. My next book was inspired by a trip to Venice and is about an old piece of music that may be haunting people. I composed the music myself, and we’ll get a violinist to record it to go along with the book.”

Gerritsen appears for signings in cities around the world, addressing audiences in a number of cultures. What’s their common buzz?

“The No. 1 question is about Maura’s romantic life (ongoing in several books),” she said. “They all want to know, ‘Is she going to end up with the Catholic priest or not?’ And, ‘Why is such a brilliant woman making such bad romantic choices?’ That relationship fascinates and irritates them.

“All I can answer is, ‘How many really smart women do you know of who have ended up with the wrong men?’ Then everyone says, ‘OK, I get it now.’”

So, uh, just what will happen between Maura and the priest? “I don’t know” she said, sounding a bit weary. “I’ve got to figure it out in the next Rizzoli and Isles.”

Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.

Bee Book Club

The Bee Book Club presentation with Tess Gerritsen is sold out. However, we will do our best to accommodate those who did not secure a ticket through BeeBuzzPoints. Although it is not guaranteed, some seating may be available, 6 p.m. Thursday (doors open at 5:15 p.m. for those with tickets), Tsakopoulos Library Galleria, 828 I St., Sacramento. Information: (916) 321-1128.

“Die Again” (Ballantine, $27, 352 pages) is being offered at a 30 percent discount through Thursday at Barnes & Noble, Avid Reader at the Tower in Sacramento, Avid Reader in Davis, Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills, Time Tested Books, Underground Books, Hornet Bookstore at California State University, Sacramento, the UC Davis Bookstore and the Bookseller in Grass Valley.