Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Apprentice, by Tess Gerritsen

Nicholas Lam, the blind audio librarian at Malaysian Association for the Blind, asked me to record some fiction by Chinese authors, "but not Amy Tan, please."  She's not been a hit at MAB. Tess Gerritsen, her Scandinavian married name notwithstanding, is Chinese American, a former surgeon who pens medical thrillers and lives in my former home state of Maine. Nicholas gave The Apprentice the nod.  

The story is set in another of my old stomping grounds, Boston. Detective Jane Rizzoli realises that a grisly new spate of killings looks like the handiwork of the Surgeon -- a murderer who had a deft touch with a scalpel, but who is serving his life sentence in a high-security prison. The only explanation? The new "unsub" (unknown subject) must be a fan of the Surgeon, or even his apprentice in crime.

Unlike the killers in much of the Nordic noir that I read, these murderers are not normal people caught up in bad situations. They are patently insane, rivalling the villains in the Hannibal Lecter novels for pure, gut-clenching psychopathology. Clearly Dr. Gerritsen has done her homework in forensic psychology as well as her share of post mortem sleuthing. She has also stepped beyond the medical arena and got deeply into the heads of the homicide detectives who track these monsters.

After Warren Hoyt (the Surgeon) pulls off an audacious and bloody escape, he and his "apprentice" begin to hunt and kill together, each having skills and cravings that satisfy the other.  Detective Rizzoli goes to the penitentiary from which Hoyt escaped, hoping to get some ideas about who had been communicating with him during his incarceration. To her horror and disgust, the prison warden shared with her quite a stack of "fan mail", much of it sent by women who had watched the saga of his arrest and trial in the media. The fact that he was convicted of murdering young women much like themselves didn't seem to put them off in the slightest. I doubt Dr. Gerritsen pulled this detail out of thin air; I find it no less mystifying and repellent than does Jane Rizzoli.
She saw a variety of stationery, a few pastels and florals, and one imprinted with Jesus saves. Most absurd of all was the stationery decorated with images of frolicking kittens. Yes, just the thing to send to the Surgeon. How amused he must have been to receive that. She opened the envelope with the kittens and found a photo inside, of a smiling woman with hopeful eyes. Also enclosed was a letter, written in a girlish hand, the i's dotted with cheery little circles: "To: Mr. Warren Hoyt, Prisoner Massachusetts Correctional Institute. Dear Mr. Hoyt, I saw you on TV today, as they were walking you to the courthouse. I believe I am an excellent judge of character, and when I looked at your face, I could see so much sadness and pain. Oh, such a great deal of pain! There is goodness in you; I know there is. If only you had someone to help you find it within yourself . . . "
At one point, whilst riding in an airport limousine, Rizzoli considers that a limo or taxi driver would have the credentials of the killer she is seeking, the Surgeon's apprentice. We have an unfortunate tendency to imagine killers as conspicuous monsters. A deadly error, she thinks, as she regards the face of her driver in the rear-view mirror.
A face that no one would register from the back seat of a car. They are the faceless army dressed in uniforms, she thought. The people who clean our hotel rooms and haul our luggage and drive the limousines in which we ride. They move in a parallel world, seldom noticed until they are needed. Until they intrude into ours.
This is just the sort of book the blind readers at MAB love -- plenty of action, but with enough technical detail and psychological depth to keep them engaged. The fact the the author is of Chinese descent is totally irrelevant to the plot, but that part of the original request seems to have been forgotten. The request now is for more Tess Gerritsen.  

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