Back Pages: Ron Wynn goes sleuthing for detective novels

Rizzoli & Isles: Last To Die, Tess Gerritsen (Ballantine)

A couple of years ago mystery author Tess Gerritsen became the latest crime writer to inspire a television sensation. TNT debuted the show Rizzoli & Isles, which is loosely based on her series of novels about a Boston detective and her medical examiner pal. But, as is usually the case, there are major differences between the literary and small screen presentations. These are reaffirmed in Gerritsen’s latest volume Rizzoli & Isles: Last To Die (Ballantine).

gerritsenDespite the presence of the TNT logo on the book jacket celebrating the connection (and also getting cross marketing juice), anyone whose perception of the characters or their relationship has been shaped solely by the TV show will quickly get some surprises. First, unlike the single (and perennially unlucky in her choices of male companionship) person portrayed by Angie Harmon, this Jane Rizzoli is married and a mother. Likewise, Maura Isles doesn’t share living space with Rizzoli’s mother, and she also must deal with difficult personal relationships.

Last To Die features the duo ensnarled in a difficult case that initially seems to revolve around 14-year-old Teddy Glock, the survivor of two brutal murders that killed multiple sets of parents. They decide to relocate him to Evensong, a Maine school specifically built to house and educate young children who are survivors of hideous violence. But they discover Glock’s fate is linked to that of fellow Evensong students Will Yablonski and Claire Ward, even though what happened to their families occurred in different nations and at other times.

As the case unfolds, they find the CIA’s imprint, plus the possible involvement of a strange outside society with odd ideas regarding training, social interaction and personal evolution. Rizzoli and Isles have other problems affecting them as well. Rizzoli’s mother and father’s longtime marriage is disintegrating. Isles wonders whether she needs to leave Boston after her testimony puts a popular cop behind bars for corrupt activity. Gerritsen inserts enough surprises and twists to keep readers guessing, though the identity of the killer and his relationship to the school becomes a bit obvious near the end.

Still, Last To Die has far more intriguing moments and prickly character interaction than you get with the TNT cases. Gerritsen can spend additional time on side plots, spotlight investigative nuances and internal policy disputes, and do other conceptual things to spice the tale that aren’t viable options  in the restrictive broadcasting environment, even on cable. The final moments of Last To Die also suggest the next addition in the Rizzoli & Isles series will be even more entertaining.

11th Hour, James Patterson (Little, Brown)

No writer or author has had more New York Times bestsellers than James Patterson (a Vanderbilt grad among other things). His lengthy list of popular characters include Washington D.C. sleuth Alex Cross, New York detective Michael Bennett, and the international detective agency Private, Inc.

11thFor a short time Patterson had an ABC show based on another series, The Women’s Murder Club. It chronicles the adventures of four San Francisco women whose careers and lives intersect around solving murders. They are homicide detective Lindsay Boxer, journalist Cindy Thomas, medical examiner Claire Washburn, and prosecutor Yuki Castellano. Unfortunately, the program lacked creative punch, and not even the presence of Harmon (who portrayed Boxer) proved enough to get it more than one season.

Still, that hasn’t hurt the novels’ appeal. 11th Hour, (Little, Brown), co-written with Maxine Paetro, is the 11th Women’s Murder Club Mystery. Boxer is pregnant and involved in a pair of thorny cases. One concerns a host of severed heads found in the garden of legendary actor/director/producer Harry Chandler. The other may be a case of a cop turned vigilante. Drug dealers are being killed, and ballistics reports show the bullets are from guns taken out of the station’s property division. There’s also a reporter with an agenda that includes making cops (and Boxer in particular) look incompetent and/or corrupt whenever possible.

The Patterson style is fast paced. His stories are reliable, his characters realistic, and their trials and tribulations nicely incorporated within the cases to provide balance for those who don’t want strict procedural or hardboiled police/crime fiction without comic relief or human drama.

11th Hour doesn’t vary the formula that’s sold 240 million books. It’s enjoyable, but not for those who prefer mystery fiction with lots of social, political or cultural analysis. Patterson doesn’t totally omit these things. They’re just nowhere as important in these works as the daily lives of everyone in the Women’s Murder Club.

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About Ron Wynn

Ron Wynn is a music critic, author and editor. His features, reviews and articles have run locally in the Nashville Scene, The City Paper (Nashville) and on among others. Wynn is currently sports editor for the Tennessee Tribune and a contributor to Jazz Times. He is former editor of the New Memphis Star and former chief jazz and pop music critic for the Bridgeport Post-Telegram and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Wynn has contributed to such publications such as Billboard, The Village Voice, Creem, Rock & Roll Disc, Living Blues, The Boston Phoenix, and Rejoice. He was the editor of the first edition of The All Music Guide to Jazz (1994), and from 1993 to 1994 served as the jazz and rap editor of the All Music Guide. Wynn is the author of The Tina Turner Story. He has contributed liner notes for numerous albums; his liner notes for “The Soul of Country Music” received a 1998 Grammy nomination.