Tess Gerritsen: The Sinner

Gerritsen, Tess (2004), The Sinner, Ballantine
ISBN 978-1-101-88739-4

The Sinner is the first novel I have read of Tess Gerritsen’s series of books about homicide detective Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles. This is a surprisingly good book. I say surprisingly because the first third is a bit of a slog. Gerritsen, judging from this book, is not a gifted stylist, nor is she particularly gifted at using broader observations to elevate the dark and bloody subject matter of her books. But this book is extraordinarily well constructed on levels that have only tangentially to do with the crime at hand. Structurally, Gerritsen has an incredible understanding of the various implications of the crimes and the suspected criminals and has her own investigative team implicated in interesting ways. Central to The Sinner is the way our bodies can be compromised by us, by ideology, by greed. Gerritsen herself, as a novelist, is implicated in this.

The underlying crime, which is revealed towards the end, is one motivated by racism, by the blindness of white people to the plight of poor people of color and by the way white institutions center the issues of white people which is why the underlying crime went unrecognized for such a long time. And in her novel, Gerritsen notes the problem, but entirely replicates it by offering a white set of investigators and criminals, with people of color reserved as witnesses and victims. This is not inherently a bad quality of the book – books whose criticism accidentally implicate the book itself are a genre all onto themselves and are frequently worth reading.

So what happened? Someone broke into a convent, murdered two nuns, one of them pregnant. Then, a murdered, mutilated body is found. “What is she, black? Latina?” As Rizzoli, Isles and the Boston PD attempt to figure out what happened, Gerritsen, for a long time, in hindsight, does not move closer to identifying the culprit, instead offering us what ends up being investigatory lateral movement, which is the most interesting part of the book. Walking through the convent, Jane Rizzoli, the tough as nails Boston cop, feels off, unwell, strange. The reason, as everyone will guess within pages, is that Rizzoli is pregnant. The way this affects her body, and leads her to ask questions of herself, of her relationships, and of her family history ultimately acts like an inverse Greek choir to the investigation of the dead nun, who kept her pregnancy quiet. Rizzoli dives deep into the culture of secrecy at the convent, uncovers how a community of women may structure secrets and support. How grief and female trauma can be written into the very architecture of such a community.

All the while Rizzoli herself struggles with having rejected these kinds of communities. Not until a long conversation with her own mother towards the end of her book can the detective deal with her fears. It also inadvertently demonstrates that the police force, despite the ballyhooed support structure among cops, is primarily a space for male power. When a colleague and friend misinterprets Rizzoli’s friendliness as flirting, she has the additional pleasure of dealing with the not uncommon problem of explaining to a man that friendliness is not an invitation to fuck. Rizzoli’s isolation stands in stark contrast to the connections at the convent. Also, Rizzoli’s personal arc is almost entirely unrelated to the broader criminal activity. Maura Isles on the other hand has a small, entirely banal personal arc that’s related to the convent (it’s trite paint-by-numbers “nuns were mean to me in high school” personal trauma), and a major personal arc that is directly tied into the crime. This one, too, has to do with community and trust.

For a writer whose book so intensely relies on personal feelings to contextualize and elevate the criminal issues at hand, Gerritsen is remarkably bad at writing emotions. All of these examples above work best as paraphrase. On the page, Gerritsen assures us that “she found no comfort in this bleak place, where death had walked, contemptuous of holy symbols” and when Isles has sex, these are the words offered to us: “She welcomed him into her, urging him on, and though she lay beneath him, it was not in submission. She took her own pleasure, just as he took his, claiming her due with a soft cry of victory.” And while “Rizzoli seemed to carry her own heat source within her, the fever of her outrage,” the nuns “were dying flames, flickering out one by one.” This wattpad level of emotional subtlety is this book’s biggest weakness.

It’s not that the writing is overall terrible – Tess Gerritsen is no Patricia Cornwell – it is what is often called “serviceable” – clear enough, and at times genuinely good at dealing with spaces and movement. There is a lot of nodding and are you thinking what I am thinking, but never so much that it obscures the clear lines of morality that are essential to this kind of book. And Gerritsen’s lines are the right ones – unlike writers like Harris, who has a deep suspicion of deviant sexuality, for Gerritsen it is the more common ones: corporate greed and the cowardice of people involved in the workings of global corporate greed is the big bad, whereas the actual murderer here is an individual, a cog in the machine that needs greasing with blood now and then, to write in Gerritsen’s idiom. She’s not wrong, this is fine, and the latter half of its 400 pages is genuinely engaging. I don’t know if I should read more of her work – much of this book’s