By MIKE CHAIKEN
If suspense novelist Tess Gerritsen had not moved out of her native California 20-plus years ago, no one may have heard of the fictional detective-medical examiner team of “Rizzoli & Isles.”
Dr. Maura Isles and Detective Jane Rizzoli are the creations of Gerritsen, who just released her latest installment of their adventures, “Last to Die.” Gerritsen’s characters also serve as the basis for the TNT network television show starring Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander.
Tess will be coming to the Mohegan Sun on Feb. 2 for The Big Book Club Getaway.
The Rizzoli and Isles novels are all based in New England (with the occasional detour). “The Last to Die,” for instance, takes the characters from urban Boston to the wild and wooly backwoods of Maine.
Tess, calling from her home in Maine where she was being pelted by ice and snow in a post-Christmas storm, explained she grew up in California. But, she said, “The weather in California is so boring.”
New England is not so boring.
Mark Twain once wrote: “There is a sumptuous variety about the New England weather that compels the stranger’s admiration — and regret. The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business; always getting up new designs and trying them on the people to see how they will go.”
And the transient nature of New England weather is great for getting the creative juices flowing, Tess said. And the changing of the seasons of the northeast helps set different moods for her writing..
Additionally, the New England winter, with its shorter days and foul weather leaves a writer homebound forcing her to focus her time on writing. The shorter days also provide the right amount of gloom to churn out the pages of a good suspense story.
Tess’s latest adventure with Rizzoli and Isles, “Last to Die,” tells the story of three youths that are bound tragedy. All of their parents were murdered, and all of their subsequent guardians were killed as well. The youths then find themselves attending a private school in the backwoods of Maine, called Evensong, which is housed in a castle constructed by an industrial baron in the 19th century.
Both Rizzoli and Isles are attached to the Boston Police Department—Rizzoli is a detective and Isles is a medical examiner. And much of Tess’s tale takes place in familiar and actual environs in the city. So it would seem to make sense that the castle Evensong calls home would be an actual place. Tess’s descriptions in the novel definitely are well-drawn as if the author had visited and studied the location before committing the setting to the pages of the book.
However, Tess said, “(The location of Evensong) is completely fictional. It doesn’t exist.” Although her readers have told her, “It feels like it should exist.”
That is because, Tess explained, a school like Evensong would not be out of place in Maine, if it were real. “Maine is the land of private schools… and colleges and summer camps.”
The characters of Rizzoli and Isles are unique in the universe of suspense novels. Typically, a suspense novel will have a main hero, who has then a sidekick. Think Robert Parker’s Spenser, who is backed but not eclipsed by Hawk. Think also James Patterson’s Alex Cross.
However, Rizzoli and Isles, although they come into the stories with different talents and abilities, are essentially equals and partners in “Last to Die.”.
However, Tess explained that she never set out for the characters to be what they have since become. She explained the evolution to where they are today was very organic.
Rizzoli made her first appearance in one of Tess’s novel, “The Surgeon,” as a secondary character. Tess didn’t particularly like the character and had intended to kill her off. She was a bitch and unlikeable as initially envisioned. But through the writing process, Tess said she began to better understand Rizzoli and began to develop a back story for her that explained how the detective became so ornery. Tess decided Rizzoli had become embittered because she was a woman in a man’s world—police work—and had to develop this persona in order to survive.
With a better understanding of the character, said Tess, her interest in Rizzoli grew. She did not kill the character off in “The Surgeon.” And the character’s role grew in the next novel, “The Apprentice.”
In that second novel, Tess also introduced a medical examiner by the name of Isles. And like what happened with Rizzoli, Tess said her interest in that character grew as well.
By 2003’s “The Sinner” Rizzoli and Isles grew into the equal partnership that continues to this day.
Tess, by trade, is a physician so you can see how she has gleaned some of her medical knowledge used by the character of Isles. But, as for background with the police, well she is a quick study. She didn’t intend to write novels where police work was prominent. And didn’t know anyone in the police world, other than the medical examiners she had met.
In Rizzoli and Isles’ books, Tess often offers a peek into the family life of the characters. For instance, in “Last to Die,” Rizzoli is trying to play peacemaker for her parents, after her father bails out of the marriage for a younger woman and her mother begins to make plans to remarry following the dissolution of her first marriage.
As for why she takes that tact of getting personal with her characters, Tess explained she never really considers herself just a crime novelist. She said she believes in creating a universe of characters, much like the old police drama “Hill Street Blues” used to do on television. On that show, she explained, when there weren’t crimes to resolve, viewers got to know everyone in the show as a person.
As the series of Rizzoli and Isles has proceeded, the number of acquaintances for the characters continues to grow. And she likes to share their stories. “It makes the stories richer.”
This peek at life away from the police work also adds dimensions to how the characters react in the novels, said Tess. For instance, when “Last to Die” opens with her arrival on a crime scene to find a dead child, Rizzoli’s reaction to the scene is shaped by her new role at home as a mother.
Since the introduction of Rizzoli and Isles as characters in Tess’s novels, they have been adapted for television.
Novels tend to be a solitary pursuit, with very little need for collaboration. Television, on the other hand, is all about collaboration from the script writers, to the directors, to the actors… and a myriad of other collaborators.
Asked how it felt to essentially share her “baby,” the characters of Rizzoli and Isles, to strangers, Tess said the baby has grown up, become a teenager, and moved out on her own .
Although the show is fun to watch, Tess said she has nothing to do with the series featuring her creations. And, she said, the characters on television have become nothing like she had envisioned them.
But, although the temptation may be there to change her literary vision to conform more with the television perspective of Rizzoli and Isles, Tess said the television characters and the novel characters are living separate lives. “I haven’t changed the characters for the television show,” said Tess. Rizzoli and Isles, on the written page, are the same characters she created.
Tess will appear at the The Big Book Club Getaway on Saturday, Feb. 2.
At the event, which is held Feb. 1 and 2, more than 40 authors and presenters will discuss their work including Leeza Gibbons, Brad Meltzer, , Mary McGarry Morris (“Songs in Ordinary Time”), Patricia Schultz (“1,000 Places to See Before You Die”), Kristin van Ogtrop (managing editor of Real Simple Magazine), Amy Newmark (Publisher of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series) and many more. Mohegan Sun said the concept expands upon the traditional living room reading group where small groups of avid readers come together to meet interesting. Cost is $125 at the door; $100 for full two-day program (if registered and paid-in-full by Jan. 30); $75 for high school/college students and librarians with valid ID.
For more information and tickets, go to thebigbookclub.org for tickets and more information.