THE BONE GARDEN
Tess Gerritsen

 


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Bantam Press, 2007
Reviewed by Kerrie Smith

Maura Isles, Boston medical examiner, tells Julia Hamill that the skeleton she has dug up in her back garden is old, much older than the house that she has recently purchased. The skeleton is that of a female under 35 years, murdered and buried perhaps more than 150 years ago. Julia is recently divorced and had been labouring to convert the barren back yard into a garden when her shovel struck a skull. Now her backyard is an excavation site for the medical examiner's office.

For most of the book, which jumps - sometimes a little jarringly - backwards and forwards between the 1830s and the present day, we are following an ancestor of the last owner of the house, the person whose estate Julia bought the house from. We do this both through reading about events as they happen, and through papers and letters hoarded by the previous occupant Hilda Chamblett.

The prologue in THE BONE GARDEN is a letter dated in 1888 from O.W.H. to Margaret offering to tell her a secret about her parents that he has kept for fifty-eight years. Julia becomes involved in a quest to identify the skeleton when she is contacted by Hilda's elderly cousin Henry Page. He offers to tell her of the strange affair of Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of Boston's revered native sons, and the West End Reaper.

This is the eleventh of Tess Gerritsen's novels. It is almost a stand-alone. Maura Isles, one of the pair of usual protagonists in Gerritsen novels, makes only two cameo appearances at the beginning to give her verdict on the skeleton which has become the focus of excavation by the medical examiner's office. It almost feels like Isles is giving Gerritsen permission to branch out without her.

Writing 'cold case' books seem to have become popular with crime writers in the last year or two. For many it has been in the form of a police procedural, cold cases unearthed as retired detectives with time on their hands take advantage of technical advances like DNA and sophisticated fingerprinting software. Some have been cases of bodies buried for a decade or two. In THE BONE GARDEN Gerritsen was more ambitious, launching into a cold case almost two centuries old. Her images of Boston in the 1830s create for us an understanding of a time when medicine was in its infancy, anatomy a new science, and the world very different to the one we live in today.

On the Acknowledgements page, Gerritsen says she has had a long hard year labouring to bring THE BONE GARDEN to life. To be honest I don't think she has quite mastered the technique of interweaving of the present day with the historical. Just so that the reader doesn't get lost, she alerts us to each time change with chapter headings that say '1830' or 'The present'. In order to bring it off she has had to introduce elements of coincidence, dreams that connect Julia to events in the past, voices from the past clamouring to be heard, and more than one love story. I don't think Gerritsen fans will be disappointed, though. The writing is clever and tidy, there is more than one mystery to be solved, and despite the book's length, it flies quickly.

Dec 2007 review originally published in Murder and Mayhem

 

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