The Bone Gardenby Tess Gerritsen is more of a historical mystery that is told alternately between the present day and the past. The story opens with a missive from O.W.H. referring to the events in 1830 regarding the West End Reaper, a killer who terrorized South Boston during that time.
The author decides to transport the reader back to 1830 to see how those events unfold first hand. I must admit that I’m not a big fan of alternating time periods, however, the author does a good job alternating back and forth in time without it disrupting the flow of the story.
In the opening of the story, Julia Hamill has just moved into her Weston home, a decrepit, old house built back in the 1880’s. It’s an impulsive buy since Julia’s most recent divorce. So, one day, while out digging in her garden, Julia’s shovel unearths a human skull and the police are called in to investigate. Dr. Maura Isles is called to the residence to examine the bones and decides that it’s not a ME case.
She then refers it to Dr. Petrie, a forensic anthropologist who after examining the complete skeleton states that the premorbid fractures on the skull is indicative of foul play. Shortly after that, Julia gets a call from Henry Page, an 89-year old family historian and cousin of the previous owner, Hilda Chamblett, who died of natural causes on the property that Julia now owns. Hilda had left behind boxes, papers and old newspaper clippings that Henry eventually inherited. So, Henry offers Julia a chance to go through the archives and see if there is any story relating to the bones found in Julia’s garden.
The author then shifts the story to 1830 and we are introduced to Norris Marshall, a farm boy from Belmont who has been accepted into the Boston College of Medicine. Norris is no blue blood. He’s penniless with no connections or family of influence. His ambition is to be a good doctor and so far he has succeeded in becoming a skilled anatomist.
As a bargain to pay for some of his tuition, Norris goes out at night with the other local “resurrectionists”, uncovering shallow graves , looking for fresh bodies for Dr. Thomas Sewall’s dissection table. It’s a lucrative job and an illegal one, too. The scarcity of cadavers in medical schools has created a lucrative black market for grave robbing. Only convicted murderers were automatically sent to the anatomist table but with a small percentage of bodies coming from the executioner, demand has outstripped supply.
The most integral part of the plot centers around Meggie, the daughter born to an Irish immigrant. The baby’s aunt, Rose Connelly, a seamstress who stays in squalid conditions to secure her niece a wet nurse, is her only family. Shortly after Meggie is born, two nurses are brutally murdered within short proximity of the hospital. Rose suspects it has something to do with the baby and hides her. In the interim, Norris is a suspect simply by circumstance and his skill as an anatomist and so he seeks out the only other person who has ever claimed to see the West End Reaper: Rose Connolly. So, Norris and Rose work together and with the help of Oliver Wendall Holmes, they unlock the mystery that threatens to unravel secrets which can lead to a huge social scandal.
The best parts of the novel for me were the parts that focused on the medical procedures and the history of medicine. I enjoyed the lecture and the dissection class led by Dr. Thomas Sewall (who was convicted of grave robbing). I enjoyed traveling with the local resurrectionist in his search for fresh bodies risking a misdemeanor and imprisonment. The author uses real life characters, most notably, Oliver Wendell Holmes, a physician who came up with the novel concept that doctors needed to “wash their hands” to help prevent the spread of disease. Many times doctors would leave straight from the autopsy table to deliver babies without washing their hands. My least favorite parts of the novel would be the romance that crops up toward the end of the novel. I felt that it was tacked on and unnecessary.
While the suspense part of the novel was well done, the resolution of it left much to be desired. The villain simply came out of nowhere for me and the motivation behind the killing spree was pretty far fetched. I don’t think it was ever revealed as to real identify of The West End Reaper. Then finally, when the story concludes in the present day, with Julia finding true love through kismet, I rolled my eyes and closed the book with a sigh.
All in all, not a bad book. The novel had a slow start, strong middle with a unsatisfactory conclusion for me. I felt that the tragic ending while unexpected, it was completely unwarranted and took way from the book. After much contemplation, I’d rate this book a B. The sum of it’s best parts slightly outweigh the negative for me and the novel is well researched and entertaining. A recommended read if your local library has a copy.
[tags]Tess Gerritsen, Historical Mystery, Boston, Massachusetts[/tags]