Stephen King once described New York Times best-selling author Tess Gerritsen as being “even better than Michael Crichton,” high praise coming from the King of Horror.
A physician who has written both medical and crime thrillers (Publisher’s Weekly has characterized her as the “medical suspense queen”), Gerritsen consistently garners critical acclaim, winning the Nero Wolfe Award (for Vanish) and the Rita Award (for The Surgeon). Her latest book Ice Cold—the eighth featuring characters Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles, the detective and medical examiner who are the basis for TNT’s new drama series Rizzoli & Isles—is white-hot suspense of the sort King has admired.
Haunting from the very first page, Ice Cold begins with a sixteen-year-old flashback to a creepy Idaho cult that uses religion to sanction the marriage and rape of young girls. Thirteen-year-old girl Katie Sheldon’s parents willingly gave their daughter’s hand—indeed, her body—to Prophet Goode: “She turned to look at her father and mother,” Gerritsen writes, describing the wedding of man and child. “Silently she implored them to take her from this place, to bring her home where she belonged. They were both beaming as they sang. Scanning the hall, she searched for someone who would pluck her out of the nightmare, but all she saw was a vast sea of approving smiles and nodding heads … a room where no one heard, where no one wanted to hear, a thirteen-year-old girl’s silent shrieks.”
The novel then flashes forward again to describe an illicit and dysfunctional present-day affair between Isles and a Catholic priest, a romance doomed not just by circumstances but also by the seemingly unstoppable forces of indecision and status quo.
Having parted with her collared lover in a particularly disagreeable way at the airport—God is tough competition for her affection—Isles goes away to a medical conference in Wyoming. While there, she crosses paths with a fellow conference attendee she last knew as a blond-haired party boy from her alma mater. Unbeknownst to her, he has gone on to make good in medical school.
Predictably, the two have dinner and a few drinks, share some laughs, engage in witty repartee about big-L life—he is a divorced father, she is one-half of a tragically flawed romance—and, finally, agree that Isles will accompany him, his two friends, and his daughter on a post-conference weekend ski trip.
But before they ever reach the cozy lodge with the crackling fire, the GPS takes the group’s SUV down an unmarked road in the snow, gets them irreversibly stuck in a ravine and forces them to seek shelter down a private drive in a deserted, monastically furnished home. It is one of twelve identical, and empty, houses in a settlement of some kind where the last residents mysteriously left food on the dinner table and now-dead pets.
This ghost town known as Kingdom Come, where there is no electricity (or cell phone signal), is unsettling, though the homes are stocked with the wood and food that Maura and her traveling companions need to survive their ordeal amid single-digit temperatures and several feet of snow. All of the simple abodes are bereft of decoration but for a single framed poster in each, of the same dark-haired man looking upward. “There were no curtains, no knickknacks,” writes Gerritsen. “The only books were how-to manuals. Diesel Engine Repair. Basic Plumbing. Home Veterinary Manual. This was not a woman’s house; this was not a woman’s world.”
It doesn’t take long for the reader to assume that this revered man in the poster and the detestable Prophet Goode in the book’s opening—a cult leader obsessed with barely pubescent flesh, and who has a ready supply with the blessing of his followers—must be one and the same.
When the priest can’t reach Isles, who misses her plane home, he alerts her detective friend Jane Rizzoli, who, along with her FBI agent husband, launches an exhaustive investigation into Isles’s whereabouts. It’s not long before they find the badly mangled and burned bodies of some of the group members in their abandoned SUV.
What follows is a delightfully unpredictable mystery that, layer upon layer, makes parallel sense of both the present and the past. Just when the reader seems to know who Ice Cold‘s antagonist is, a new one emerges, and then another.
The book’s ending isn’t terribly tidy, which suggests that the author may have additional use for one or more of this supporting Rizzoli & Isles cast. But Gerritsen’s careful introduction of characters, swift pacing, multi-pronged plot, and a prose style that makes impossibly complex medical procedures accessible all conspire to make her latest book ideal one-sitting escapism.
Tess Gerritsen will discuss Ice Cold at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Memphis on July 20 at 6 p.m.