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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