Vanish by Tess Gerritsen

vanishI am back to reading and back to reading crime which maybe wasn’t a good idea. Especially considering how I had to work through Vanish. Here we have another predictably solved tale that could have been great but simply wasn’t. I have written about what I like and don’t like in Gerritsen’s writing and this fifth novel of the Rizzoli & Isles-series has too much of the dislikes and too little of the likes.

As always, the idea is a good one:

Russian girls are smuggled into the U.S. to become slaves to male desires – not an uncommon occurence and certainly a story worth telling. One of these women turns up supposedly dead in Maura’s morgue and the Medical Examiner finds herself in an frightening position of discovering that the woman is not dead. Jane finds out about how alive this woman really is when she is taken hostage by her while being in the throes of childbirth. But what drives the young woman to these desperate measures, what does she want? Her tale is revealed in narrative strings that lead to the one person with too much power and a secret he wants to keep.

Gerritsen knows how to pick exciting stories, her ideas are captivating. Unfortunately, the execution is often lacking. Or, at least, I find it so. And it is just possible that Gerritsen reaches into too many of my dislikes and that nobody else finds fault with how she strings a tale.

As I have already written, I found the solution predictable. That last plot twist that should have been surprising simply wasn’t, sad but not the most disappointing part of the novel. What irked me more, was Gerritsen’s un-focus on one protagonist. As part of the Rizzoli & Isles-series one might have assumed that it would be one or both of these characters (and maybe we shouldn’t just assume this since the book was published BEFORE Rizzoli & Isles became a brandname of a very popular tv show that focuses almost entirely on the protagonists’ chemistry). But Gerritsen pretty much abandons them – and their outstanding chemistry – throughout the tale to lay more focus on Jane’s husband, Gabriel Dean. With Jane in labor and Maura without corpses to work on, Dean takes the focal point – at least for part of the story. Other parts are told from the point of view of Mila, one of the Russian girls. Only at the end, Jane resumes her duties as crime-fighting detective – with a baby strapped to her hip.

I didn’t mind the idea of Jane being a parent as much as I minded the way Gerritsen described the inequality of motherhood vs. fatherhood. It is too much of an accepted convention that motherhood means ‘more’ in the great scheme of parenthood than what a father has to bring to the table. Dean may protect his family, but Jane has to be the one to (breast)feed, cuddle, and diaper-change the baby. And Dean is therefore allowed to criticize if Jane fails to do all these things. Again, Gerritsen loses herself in gender-roles that are very traditional and traditionally set without even realizing it.

And while Maura makes the discovery of a living corpse (which is eery and wonderfully told), she wilts to bystander during the course of the novel. She doesn’t even visit her best friend and her baby, she’s simply there to introduce new characters and direct our attention toward the blistering heat of Boston in summer.

Vanish is the result of taking Rizzoli & Isles out of Rizzoli & Isles. After the initial shocks of plot introduction, the novel loses itself in boring character shifting. There’s no interaction between the two friends. The whole novel seems wobbly and out of joint. At least that is the impression I’ve had. Yes, the story is interesting but it needs a lot of time to establish its force and by the time it does, too much of the plot has been revealed to really shock the audience out of its stupor. And this is sad since the idea is quite great – yet the execution…

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Body Double by Tess Gerritsen

(I am not sure why the pictures of the covers are not quite accurate. This one is also a little different from the one I have. Well, never mind, as long as the story is the same, I guess.)

When Dr. Maura Isles comes back from a convention in Paris, she encounters a scene out of a nightmare: a woman was found dead in a car infront of her house and she looks just like the medical examiner. The investigation turns up evidence that this woman was her twin sister, and she is not the only relative Maura Isles meets during this exciting story about serial killers and other psychotic behavior.

I really like the way Gerritsen explores the friendship of Maura and Jane. The two women come from the most different places, with very different characters but at the end of the day, they genuinely like each other and nobody is more surprised about this than they are. They are unlikely allies but maybe this is why it works so well. It is cerainly one of the strongest appeals of the series and the one reason it has become a tv show because the friendship/relationship is the heart of the series (seriously, who cares about the murders on this show when Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander are eye-blazing each other?).

It is not the only appeal, though. Gerritsen writes exciting crime, baffling medical thriller. A lot of it is particularly gruesome and maybe the reader can find him- or herself in the devious Dr. O’Donnell who is a little too fascinated by the monsters she analyzes. I always found that my fascination with horror movies was a little macabre even if it also tends to lean toward the aesthetic. And I find the same fascination with Tess Gerritsen’s novels.

In this story, it may be especially strong because of that old question whether evil in human beings is inheritable. Where does it come from? Is it a question of DNA or of socialization? Gerritsen seems to tend more toward socialization and I would agree with her. But I am no expert, I am just a reader with too much time on her hands.

Well, where there is good, there is usually bad as well, and I have already talked about this in my review of The Sinner: heteronormativity rules. Maura finds herself another love interest while still fighting her attraction toward a catholic priest. And I find some disturbingly conservative gender role play at work. The difference between The Sinner and Body Double seems to be that Gerritsen is aware of it here. Mattie Purvis, a woman incarcerated during most of the story, seems to be commentary on classic heteronormative socialization and fights her way from desperate housewife to mother tigress. The subject matter demands the latter role and I would rather have had a woman who fights for her own sake rather than a baby’s but, I guess, some clichées can’t be helped. On the whole, the one thing that annoys me most is Maura’s desperate search for a man. Yes, she is forty years old, yes, she is attractive but does she really have to fall for every single male that struts her way. She’s like a cat in heat and her desperation is not very self-assertive. I can live with a single women, with a kick-ass job being the heroine of a crime series. I guess, this is where the tv show is actually better than the books.

Maybe it is a convention that we try to find a significant other for our heroines, maybe it is even a mirror held up to reality because every single (heterosexual) woman is looking for a man (I wouldn’t know) but I feel that Gerritsen pushes this point too hard. And with points that are being pushed too hard, the question of why is never far from my mind. This is where everybody is welcome to make their own interpretations. As for me, I think, I would welcome a steady love interest for Maura who is like Rizzoli’s agent Dean: a lot out of town. But, I guess, that’s just me.

It’s a good story, though. Much better than it’s predecessor and a reason to continue reading the series.

The Sinner by Tess Gerritsen

(The cover above is not quite the one that I have. The title is white on red and the picture of tv Jane and Maura is at the other side of Gerritsen’s name. Why is this important? It is not. I only now find myself a book-fetishist and it seems important to me. Also, the book “feels” nice, the cover has some kind of roughened surface, very  nice to touch… it’s a fetish, I am not going to apologize for it.)

The Sinner is the third novel with detective Jane Rizzoli but its focus lies heavily on medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles. Together, they are trying to solve the murder of a young nun who, it turns out, had just born a baby. Jane’s involvement in the case takes a personal turn when she finds out that she is pregnant but doesn’t want to inform the father, agent Gabriel Dean with the FBI. Maura’s life also takes an unexpected turn when her ex-husband, Victor Banks, turns up. The case doesn’t get any easier: more bodies turn up and the connection to the attack on the nuns is not what anybody had expected.

I may have mentioned this before but I am not a great fan of crime stories. I read little crime and if I do I read certain authors who I know and trust if you want. Jefferey Deaver is one of them (the Lincoln Rhyme series), Tess Gerritsen is another. Yet I must say that The Sinner rather falls into the category of predictable crime stories that make me mistrust the whole genre. While Gerritsen knows her medical field and writes an exciting story, the identity of the perp is not very surprising. The puzzle is too easily solved, and I am not sure that this is due to my observational skills or just because it is written that way. I think it is the latter.

Still, I like how the friendship between Jane and Maura builds in this novel. And yes, I am a Rizzles shipper and that makes it a little difficult not to hate agent Dean or roll my eyes at the heteronormativity that penetrates the novel at every turn, but I think Gerritsen describes the budding friendship between her protagonists rather well.

While I am glad that there is a book series with two female protagonists – as we all know this is rare, especially in a genre that is overwhelmingly male – at least in this installment I detected a very conservative take on gender roles. I am not sure whether this is due to Gerritsen’s writing or the subject matter. The title and the setting bind the novel to Catholic religion and this seems to set the tone of the novel as well. I have not detected anything like it in Gerritsen’s other novels but maybe I was a little inattentive before and this is indeed part of her way of writing. I can only say that I am not very happy about sentences like this:

“They shook hands, an oddly masculine greeting between two women.”

While I am aware that hand-shaking is more common in the European (or maybe just German) setting, I am pretty sure it cannot be called a male custom. Why would it be, especially since on this occacion it occurs between two professional women. This is one example where I found what I like to call “gendered nonsense” where a behavior is referred to as gendered when there is 1) no need for it and 2) makes no sense at all. I guess, I will find out soon enough whether this is part of Gerritsen’s writing or not since I have her next novel of the same series, The Body Double, among the books I will read next. I hope it’s not because it is not something I can stomach.

On the whole, I found The Sinner disappointing. While well-written and even better researched, it is predictable and on the disturbing side of heteronormativity.

Gerritsen, Tess. The Sinner. Bellantine Books, New York (2004).