Released in August by Ballantine /Random House, "I Know a Secret" is another suspenseful, beautifully structured addition to the series, in which the pair confront a serial killer while Medical Examiner Maura Isles' very own family serial killer—her mother—is dying of cancer, still mean to her end. Then, there's Isles' long-term love relationship with a priest, the lingering blows of a long-ago childcare abuse scandal, and Boston Detective Jane Rizzoli's desperate attempt to save her feuding parents' marriage.
Nothing is as it seems, and Gerritsen skillfully keeps the reader guessing until the end, a prerequisite to a good suspense novel.
Yet, Gerritsen said in a recent interview, she sits down with pen and paper to write first drafts, and doesn't plan them out ahead of time. Gerritsen is 64, lives in Camden, Maine, but knows the Boston life well. She keeps it in the background as Isles and Rizzoli struggle to figure out all the puzzling aspects of their lives.
"I never plot things out ahead of time. This is my 27th book (12 in the R&I series). I start writing and see where the story goes. Sometimes it takes an abrupt left-hand turn, and that gets fixed in the third or fourth rewrite. I don't show it to anyone until it's ready. I write the first draft by hand, let the story find itself. By the end, I finally know what the book is really about. About two-thirds or three-quarters of the way, I find out who the bad guy is. I have a simple premise when it starts. As I write, new things start to pop up, just as happens with a normal (criminal) investigation. By the time I'm finished, it's there."
After working about a year on "I Have a Secret," Garritsen, a resident of Maine, has been touring with its release. She recently wrapped up a tour in the United Kingdom and is flying from city to city across the U.S. But this may be her last such tour for the series.
"I feel like I've tied up a lot of loose emotional threads that have been going on for several stories," she said. "Right now, I'm working on something completely different. After awhile, a series comes to an end. I wanted to find out whether they become happy, how Jane and Maura's lives go. The series has always been about these two women, and once they're both happy, the series will be over." She thinks that time may have come, and she anticipates returning to her new book.
She began writing mysteries because she loved them as a child (any other Nancy Drew fans out there?) and has based Rizzoli and Isles on her own experiences ("because I'm a doctor, that's fairly easy for me to research"). At the beginning, she interviewed people at Boston's homicide unit. "But not since then; I pretty much focus on the pathologist end, and my husband is a part-time medical examiner in our county in Maine."
She began writing while on maternity leave, and her first novel, "Call After Midnight," came out in 1987. Eight more followed as she dug full-time into writing. She also wrote the screenplay, "Adrift," which became a 1993 TV movie with Kate Jackson. Her first medical thriller, "Harvest," came out in 1996.
In "I Know a Secret," the duo are again played against a conscienceless personality. "Sociopaths are out there," she said; "there's nothing you can do about that. Sociopaths have no empathy, do not care about human begins, and think of how they can use them as tools. Some people are born sociopaths; that's the way their brain works. They're just some kind of creature—like predators in the animal kingdom." She considers Warren Hoyt, whom readers and viewers will remember, one of the most evil characters she's created, because Warren is smart, and a psychopath—the extreme entity of sociopathy. "He thrives on the pain of other people; he's formidable because he's so incredibly intelligent. Evil, stupid people are not such an antagonist to worry about, but he looked at everybody else as prey."
Holly, the antagonist in Gerritsen's latest book, knows herself well. "For now, I must walk the straight and narrow," she tells readers at one point. "I must pretend to be the good girl who neither steals nor cheats … (but) I am what I am, and no one can watch me forever." Gerritsen calls Holly "a sociopath who gets by. She doesn't go out of her way to be evil, it's just that the things she does, she just goes about them without thinking."
Growing up in San Diego, the author finished undergraduate work in anthropology at Stanford before completing medical degrees at the University of California, San Francisco. "I practiced medicine for about 10 years, a lot of it part-time, because I became a mom pretty quickly. I always wanted to be a writer, even when I was seven years old, but my father encouraged me to go into medicine instead. He kept telling me there's no way to make a living as a writer, but when you're a writer you're going to keep at it." He did not live to see her success, a disappointment to Gerritsen, who said, "I wish he'd been alive long enough."
He would have seen that all the preparation formed steps to an end: pieces in a literary puzzle.
"You never know which experience is going to fit into your future," she said. "I didn't know my interest in anthropology would come up again and again in my books, or that medicine would add all the details that it has. Being a writer, you must be curious about many topics, and always be reading."
Gerritsen has always been interested in the collision of truth and nonsense. "That crazy satanic movement that went around the country … A lot of people ended up in jail based on children's strange memories of adults flying on brooms, riding tigers, etc. It spread to the U.S. and other places in the world. There was this strange idea that devil worshippers were everywhere." Elements of the scandal form a subplot in the book. "I'm fascinated by how people turn away from science and look at superstition—and all these things become the foundation of their lives," she said. "It's surprising how easy it is to let go of facts and accept fantasy."
As a writer, she gets more satisfaction out of less formulaic books.
"I had a novel, 'Gravity,' about the international space station." The novel was published in 1999, and the concept allegedly became the framework of a later movie by the same name—leading to a complicated breach of contract lawsuit, which she urges writers to check out on her web page, as a warning to all writers who sign rights away to a company.
"I also really loved writing 'The Bone Garden.' The books I love the most, put my heart and soul into, are the ones that did not find an audience. Somehow the popular audience doesn’t seem to like them." Does this discourage her? "All the time," she said. "Every time you write a book you want it to be the very best it can be, and very often the acceptance isn't there. We just keep plugging away because we tell the stories we want to tell."
When her tour ends, Gerritsen will return to writing. She dubs her latest book a "sexy" thriller with a ghost. It's nearly done.
She is also working on a film with her son, 35, a documentary film maker. "We're making a feature documentary about the age-old relationship between humans and pigs," she said. "We're interested in why some people refuse to eat them, why some people have such negative feelings while others love their pigs. We're going to explore the strong emotions, track archeological reasons Jews don't eat pork, for instance." The reason may not be Biblical at all, she said. "There was climate change at the time. The Holy Land became a desert fairly quickly, and pigs need water."
Their first project together was a horror film, "Island Zero." She loved working with her son. "We had such a good time making a movie together, we thought we'd follow it up."
Today's creative climate lends itself to all kinds of project ideas. "It's a funny time because you don't need a publisher to be published anymore," she said; "in some ways it's harder to get attention, but in other ways it's easier. With (self-publishing) it's a lot harder to get people to pay attention to what you've just written."
Her favorite authors, by the way, share the same first name: "I'm going to plug the three Lisas," she said: "Lisa Unger, Lisa Scott and Lisa Gardner." She loves the suspense of a good mystery, rather than the heavy-action sequences of modern thrillers (She's a fan of classic horror films like "The Birds," "The Mummy" and "Them." In a good mystery, she said, "You're left worrying about what's going to happen."
Apparently, the world agrees. Her novels are award winners, published around the world and continually on the best-seller lists.