Iíve been a big fan of Tess Gerritsenís Maura Isles/Jane Rizzoli novels since I plowed through the lot of them earlier this year. Since then, Iíve been hungry for more, so I quickly picked up a copy of her latest book, The Bone Garden. While it has a nice cameo by Isles, this book actually doesnít involve any of her known characters, which disappointed me a bit. That was, until I read the book, of course. Gerritsen has outdone herself with probably the best book she has written (at least that Iíve read), a historical mystery told with a modern-day framing device to get the action going. I was riveted from the first page and only reluctantly put it down until I was finally finished with it.
The modern-day story is a bit of a romance but begins with Julia Hamill, fresh off of a divorce from a husband who never had a good word to say about her, who has moved into an old, rundown house that requires a lot of fixing. While digging in her garden, she discovers an old skeleton, which prompts some research into the history of the elderly woman who died there. Family secrets are revealed, including old letters that tell of the time of the West End Reaper in Boston in 1830. These letters also tell the story of Rose Connolly, a young Irish immigrant whose sister dies in childbirth. She will do anything to save the child, including going up against her vindictive brother-in-law and the rest of Boston society who look down on all the riff-raff that have come over on the boat. Their stories entwine to become an illustration of the huge class differences in this time period, as well as a horrible look at the state of medicine back in the early 1800s, where medical schools pay for stolen cadavers for their students to work on and cleanliness is frowned upon.
Once again, the main strength of The Bone Garden lies in Gerritsenís excellent characterization skills. From Rose to the young medical student Norris Marshall, to his compatriots who are much higher class than he is, everybody is a joy to read about. Gerritsen even manages to make the modern story fairly interesting as well, though itís not as strong as the historical one. Her prose brings these characters to life, making us care about them (or at least find them interesting, in the case of the slimy grave robber Jack Burke, who is a notable homage to the infamous Burke and Hare murders in 1820ís Edinburgh). She even includes the historical Oliver Wendell Holmes as a medical student, and while I donít know that much about him, her characterization makes me want to know more.
In addition to making her characters interesting, Gerritsenís prose keeps the reader wrapped up in the book from beginning to end with vivid descriptions of just how desolate 1830 Boston could be, describing the slums as much as the high society manors. Some of her descriptions, as with most of her books, may bother the squeamish, so donít say you havenít been warned. There are graphic scenes of autopsies as well as medical students learning their technique (plus a sickly hilarious scene of students gone wild when the professor leaves the room full of students and corpses). Thereís even a scene with a brief description of lice abandoning a dead body for the living person whoís trying to move it. The Bone Garden is not for the faint of heart.
What it is, however, is a great starting point for anybody who may want to get started reading Gerritsen without having to jump into a series. The Rizzoli/Isles books steadily became better, but even just reading the first one, you know that itís part of a long series. The Bone Garden is a complete standalone novel and doesnít require any prior knowledge of her books, yet it has the same terrrific style that those books are known for. If you like this one, you can bet youíll like Gerritsenís regular series.
What was surprising to me is how much Gerritsen took from the real-life Burke and Hare murders. From the grave robbing to the need for cadavers for medical science all the way down to the way Burke first commits murder in this story, and the character ďDim BillyĒ (a perfect nod to the real ďDaft JamieĒ in the Burke/Hare case), there is a lot of real historical material here, some of it blatantly used and some if it deftly cut up so that even if youíre familiar with the real events, you wonít know why Gerritsenís using them here. The story has enough twists and turns, as well as original Gerritsen creativity, that it doesnít feel that much like a copy of real history. There are times where itís a bit close, but the real story probably isnít well enough known for it to be a problem for most readers.
The Bone Garden is a fascinating look at a time when medical science was floundering, where doctors themselves spread disease unknowingly. This is all included in an interesting murder mystery with a bit of romance thrown in as well. Youíd do well to give this book a try, as itís one of Gerritsenís best.