Up Close: Tess Gerritsen

The Grim Specter of Guilt

By April Snellings

Since her first hardcover novel—1996’s Harvest—put her on the New York Times bestseller list, Tess Gerritsen has been one of the genre’s most reliable producers of medical and crime thrillers. So her latest release, a steamy supernatural thriller called THE SHAPE OF NIGHT, might seem like a surprising departure for the physician-turned-author who’s best known as the creator of the Rizzoli and Isles series.

But for fans who’ve been with Gerritsen since the beginning, it’s a welcome return to her writerly roots. Before a long string of medical thrillers and procedurals launched her to publishing (and later TV) stardom, Gerritsen honed her storytelling skills writing romantic thrillers for Harlequin and Harper.

“I’ve never lost my love for that genre, which for a writer is a delicate balancing act between murder mystery and romance,” Gerritsen says. “I’ve wanted to dip my toes back in those waters, and THE SHAPE OF NIGHT gave me a chance to revisit the genre. … My crime readers have come to expect a police procedural from me so they may be a bit startled, but there is a crime involved in this story. Instead of a story about detectives, THE SHAPE OF NIGHT has a heroine unlike any I’ve created before.”

The crime, of course, is murder, and the character at the center of the story is Ava Collette, a Boston-based food writer who flees the city in the aftermath of a horrific personal tragedy. Ava is working on a book about New England cuisine, and she holes up in a seaside mansion in Maine known as Brodie’s Watch to test 19th century seafood recipes and write The Captain’s Table—at least, that’s what she tells her editor and her increasingly estranged sister. The truth is that Ava has a terrible secret, and the guilt might be driving her mad. (The novel’s original title was Shame.)

Tess Gerritsen
Photo credit: Jessica Hills

So when Ava is visited by the spirit of the house’s original owner, a handsome sea captain named Jeremiah Brodie, we can forgive her for wondering if she’s lost her marbles. And since it’s been a long time since Ava has, erm, enjoyed the company of a man, we can forgive her for succumbing to the captain’s increasingly intense overtures, even when his appetites turn dark. But when a badly decomposed female corpse turns up in the local waters and Ava uncovers some unsavory details about her ghostly lover’s mortal habits, we can’t help wondering if Ava will be the next in a long line of women who never escaped the confines of Brodie’s Watch.

“I’m a fan of the 1947 film The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, a sweet romance about a woman who moves into a house that’s haunted by the ghost of a strapping sea captain,” Gerritsen says, on the novel’s inspiration. “I wondered: what if they actually became lovers and he’s able to fulfill her every desire? Could there be any more perfect lover than a ghost who keeps all your secrets and understands what you need? Because my mind tends to veer toward the dark side, I also thought: What if this ‘perfect’ lover might be the reason every woman who’s lived in the house has also died in the house? That was all I knew about the story when I started writing it.”

Besides the book’s cinematic inspiration, Gerritsen also draws heavily on a specific literary tradition: the Gothic novels she has long loved.

“Who doesn’t love Jane Eyre and Rebecca?” she says. “The genre usually involves a house with threatening secrets, an innocent heroine, and a brooding hero. I simply gave it a twist. What if the heroine isn’t so innocent? And what if the brooding hero is a ghost?”

While THE SHAPE OF NIGHT is a perfect October read that raises plenty of gooseflesh and ticks off all the right ghost-story boxes, Gerritsen approached the novel as a skeptic and leaves plenty of room for the reader to decide what Ava is imagining versus what’s really happening.

Photo credit: Alex Mirsch

“Because I’m not a believer in the paranormal, I wanted the haunting to be a matter of interpretation,” she says. “Is Captain Brodie real or is he all in Ava’s head? This is a murder mystery that may—or may not—involve a ghost. By the end of the book, some readers may still not be certain. I want them to think of this story as a prism in which it’s possible to glimpse many angles and reflections, any of which may be true.”

One angle that is explicitly dissected, though, is the novel’s main theme, shame—an emotion that, according to Gerritsen, isn’t explored often enough in novels.

“Ava’s sense of shame is what really haunts her in this story,” Gerritsen says. “While writing it, I wondered: what could she have possibly done that made her isolate herself? Why does the ghost come to her in the punishing form he does? It is all about Ava’s guilt and self-judgment. What do you do with the idea of shame if you have done something really horrible sometime in your life? That memory of shame will just seep into every aspect of your conscious and your subconscious mind. I combined two themes: the perfect lover and how shame can come out in ways you don’t actually expect.”

THE SHAPE OF NIGHT, then, is a chimera of a novel—a murder mystery, a ghost story, and a racy romantic thriller, all rolled into one. But it also contains something unexpected from a writer who has given us more than a few unforgettably grisly medical thrillers: some truly lovely food writing. Gerritsen says that aspect of the novel is a personal one, inspired by her own family history.

Photo credit: Tess Gerritsen

“[Ava’s] love of good food, her enjoyment of cooking, and a fondness for wine are certainly drawn from my own life,” she says. “My father was part-owner of a restaurant and he was a fabulous cook. He inspired me to make every meal count. My father worked as a cook in his family seafood restaurant in San Diego, so I had a childhood of great food and a deep appreciation for the art of cooking. I also know how much hard work goes into running a successful restaurant. My dad would be up at 5 a.m. to buy fresh fish from the boats, he’d spend all morning skinning and filleting it to serve at lunch, he’d continue cooking for the dinner service, and he’d roll home and into bed around midnight. He taught me that there are only a certain number of meals we can eat during a lifetime, so we should make every one worthwhile. Don’t waste your appetite on a bad meal. That’s very much Ava’s philosophy: to savor every meal, take pleasure in its anticipation, and be comforted by the rituals of the kitchen.”

Gerritsen’s next project will find her wandering even further afield from her trademark procedurals; she’s working on a documentary film with her son Josh about “the long history of the human/pig relationship. It started with the question: how did pork become a taboo food? What’s the history? It turned into a fascinating exploration of our complicated relationship with pigs.”

 

April Snellings

April Snellings is a writer and editor whose work has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Advertising Federation. In 2015, she joined the lineup of creators for the audio drama series Tales from Beyond the Pale, an Entertainment Weekly “Must List” pick that has topped iTunes charts and played live to sold-out audiences across North America. In 2017, she was named Writer of the Year in the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards. April lives in Tennessee with her long-suffering wife, several recalcitrant dogs and cats, and a seven-foot animatronic werewolf named C. Thomas Howl.
April Snellings

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