Monday, October 28, 2013

The Surgeon, by Tess Gerritsen

When I selected one of Tess Gerritsen's novels to record for MAB last month, I randomly settled on The Apprentice, learning later that it was a sequel to The Surgeon.  Small matter -- they were no less riveting in reverse order.

In this, the first novel, a suave young doctor in South Carolina, Andrew Capra, has a beef with his internship supervisor, Dr. Catherine Cordell, who has informed him that he failed his surgical rotation in her ward. He comes to her house at the end of the shift to discuss the matter, and she invites him in for a beer.  When she regains consciousness, she is bound to her bed, naked, and looking at a tray of surgical instruments on the bedside table.  She manages to wrest a pistol from under her mattress (this is the US, after all), and she shoots her assailant.  Once, or twice, she can't remember, her mind still being fuzzy from the drug he'd slipped into her beer.  At any rate, Andrew Capra is dead.

Fast forward a few years, and plucky Dr. Cordell is now practising at a Boston hospital, focusing intently on her work and trying to put the trauma of her assault behind her. This proves impossible when a string of women in the Boston area show up in the morgue having been surgically maimed in the same manner as Andrew Capra's victims.  It doesn't take long for the police, including the brash, often abrasive Jane Rizzoli, to find their way to Dr. Cordell to investigate possible connections.  Clearly Andrew Capra has not risen from the dead, so is there a copycat on the loose?  Well, it doesn't seem likely, because the Boston killer seems to know things that were never part of the public record.  He must, it seems, have known Andrew Capra personally.

Since Tess Gerritsen has written two novels about serial-killing psychopaths who work as partners, I would guess there must be some historical precedent for this. It's ghastly enough to contemplate one bloodthirsty sadist, but to imagine two of them finding each other and "hunting" as a team is even more chilling. 

As she did in The Apprentice, Dr. Gerritsen inserts several passages in Warren Hoyt's own voice throughout the novel.  We quickly learn that he is obsessed with blood.  His is a bloodlust in the truest sense -- he gets a sensual and sexual frisson just thinking about the stuff.  Although Hoyt was asked to withdraw from medical school by the irate anatomy professor who found him molesting a cadaver in the dissection lab, he is not overly troubled by this temporary obstacle. His late parents left him a hefty inheritance, and with the help of his friend and former med school classmate, Andrew Capra, Warren can find other ways to indulge his desire to perform surgery.

Capra and Hoyt socialise as well as "work" together, often travelling abroad on holiday junkets to Greece or Central America. As he contemplates the Mayan ruins in Mexico, Warren wonders about the technique the priests would have used to extract the hearts from their living sacrificial victims, given the absence of modern luxuries like bone saws. With a little research, he finds his answer. It really is a pity he flunked out of med school, Dr. Gerritsen seems to be suggesting. He's a diligent scholar, if nothing else.
Books are wonderful things; they can tell you anything, everything, even how to cut out a heart using a flint knife, with a minimum of fuss. I found my answer in a textbook with the title Human Sacrifice and Warfare, written by an academic (my, universities are interesting places these days!), a man named Sherwood Clarke, whom I would very much like to meet someday.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of Mr. Hoyt's life is also the most banal:  He works as a lab technician -- in a hospital.  As the police are frantically searching for Hoyt, who has kidnapped Dr. Catherine Cordell and vanished with her, they stand in his lab and struggle to grasp the scope of the situation. Hoyt had access to all the vital details on those he stalked -- their names, addresses, medical histories, and diagnoses, and what he didn't discern from his computer screen, he found in the vials of their blood.  Cell counts, pathogens, requested tests to be performed.  It would be hard to imagine any other job which would provide a serial killer with all the necessary bits of data to ply his trade.  

I tell myself that I'm likelier to die from an undiagnosed disease by refusing a blood test than I am to be eviscerated by a lunatic who works in the blood lab. But I suppose that's the point of horror fiction, isn't it? Honestly, these books scare me, and I can see. I would think life for a blind person is already quite frightening enough without reading Tess Gerritsen novels.  But no, they love them, so I have my marching orders.  I'm not complaining!


  1. Sounds exciting. I wish I could find a pistol under my mattress. A Glock would be nice.

    1. Ask Santa? They seem to be more readily available in our neighbourhood nowadays...


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