Author Tess Gerritsen on the new TNT Series Rizzoli & Isles

Quick. What is Rizzoli & Isles?

A: A law firm

B: An accounting firm

C: A new cable TV series

D: A large book store chain

If you answered “C,” then you are correct, sir (or madam).

In the debuting TNT show Rizzoli & Isles, Angie Harmon co-stars as Jane Rizzoli, a sassy homicide detective who teams with stylish medical examiner Maura Isles (Sasha Alexander) to solve crimes in the Boston area.  Rizzoli uses her instincts to track down the perpetrators while Isles depends on forensics and science. Together these new BFFs attempt to uncover crimes committed by unsavory crooks and even serial killers.

Rizzoli & Isles is the creation of former internist Tess Gerritsen, 57, who decided to give up her practice and write books full-time. The change of professional scenery certainly suited her well, as Rizzoli & Isles is based on a best-selling series of mysteries featuring the two female characters.

Gerritsen, a Chinese-American who lives in Maine and is the mother of two children, took a big chance giving up medicine for writing. But there were others who came before her who had been successful doing the same thing, so she figured it was worth a try.

“I always loved the work of Michael Crichton (The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park) because he always chose scientific subjects and it was obvious he loved science,” says Gerritsen. “But I’m also fond of the work of Robin Cook (Coma) and Michael Palmer (Extreme Measures), who people don’t remember.”

Gerritsen didn’t always write crime stories. She began her career submitting short stories to regional magazines, and then graduated to penning romantic thrillers for Harlequin. She shifted to medical suspensers in 1996 with Harvest, and later moved into crime tales. Rizzoli and Isles were introduced in 2001’s The Surgeon, and the characters have been regularly appearing in Gerritsen’s best-selling stories ever since.

Gerritsen says she writes her novels using the “punch in the gut technique.”

“The idea has to wham me so I can’t let go,” she says during a stop in Philadelphia. “I don’t plot anything out. Everything is directed by what the characters do. It’s a disorganized writing process. It usually takes me a year to write a book. I try to write four pages after my morning coffee. What helps is that my office overlooks the ocean and I have a great view.”

While her Rizzoli & Isles books take place primarily in the Boston area, Gerritsen’s other suspensers are often set in other parts of the country. “My most recent book is Ice Cold, and it takes place in Wyoming. I’ve been to Wyoming before, but I like to visit places. I spent two weeks with NASA for my book Gravity. I try to get the texture of the place. I watched a mummy get scanned for a book (The Keepsake). I do this to satisfy my own curiosity. I’m interested in forensics pathology. I attend conferences on it.

“I was accepted into a pathology residency. I decided I’d rather be working with living people. My personality is closer to Isles in the show, in one way, because I’m pretty comfortable in a morgue.”

In the Rizzoli & Isles pilot episode, the detective and coroner team to investigate a group of serial killings that resemble those of an earlier murderer called the Surgeon who was jailed years ago. The Surgeon escapes from prison and attempts to continue his reign of terror, which includes making Rizzoli one of his victims.

The pilot of the show is based on Gerittsen’s aforementioned 2001 book The Surgeon, which introduced the characters.  The premise bears some resemblance to another popular serial killer opus called The Silence of the Lambs. Gerritsen recognizes the similarities, too, but explains “I wrote The Surgeon before I read any Thomas Harris.”

And like Harris’ Hannibal Lecter books, Gerritsen’s story—even the gorier ones—have a huge female fan base.


“I was on tour with the NASA book, and a woman told me she wanted to me to write about serial killers and twisted sex. Then she told me she taught third grade. Women like these sorts of books because in serial killer books, they are the victim. Women identify with the victim. The same is true with their TV shows.”

While Gerritsen’s books have never shied away from gory details, one wonders if they have gotten even grittier in recent years with the popularity of such TV shows as CSI and Bones.

“Because of CSI, people demand more realism,” she says. “They want to know inside stories. My books were more about cops and robbers at first—when I started, it was tough to get autopsy scenes in books. Now, people want them.”

Gerritsen calls Jane Rizzoli “a brash and aggressive and outspoken homicide cop, who is not always well liked,” while the more introverted Maura Isles she likens to Mr. Spock. “My women aren’t backbiting, they work cooperatively,” she states. “Jane is close to women police officers I interviewed. All are pretty tough girls. I know that she’s really me.”