Two stories in one: a mystery, a contemporary and a lot of 1830’s medical detail

The Bone Garden - Tess Gerritsen

Opening line: So this is how a marriage ends, thought Julia Hamill as she rammed the shovel into the soil.”

 This was a very good read although not quite what I was expecting. The Bone Garden is two stories woven into one; starting with Julie Hamill in present day who has just purchased a new (old) house in Boston following her divorce. While attempting to dig a garden she makes a horrifying discovery –a human skull. According to medical examiner Maura Isles (who only has a cameo in this book) the skull is very old, belongs to a woman and has the unmistakable marks of murder. This information sends Julia on a quest to find the story behind her death and sends the reader back to the 1830’s and the hunt for the West End Reaper.

Back in 1830 we follow Rose Connelly, a poor Irish immigrant trying to care for her newly orphaned niece and Norris Marshal, a struggling medical student. Their paths intersect at a teaching hospital as Rose’s sister lies dying from childbed fever and then again later when Rose witnesses a murder and Norris unwittingly becomes the chief suspect after he stumbles across the latest victim. Together they join forces to solve the murders and protect the baby which seems to be at the heart of the mystery.

I really enjoyed the beginning of this book, setting things up in both timelines and Gerritsen plays with the reader by ending each section on a bit of a cliff-hanger, forcing you to keep turning the pages. There are many well developed secondary characters in both time lines including a resurrectionist (grave robber) who digs up corpses from graveyards for sale on the black market (worth 25$ and totally gruesome) Speaking of which, Gerritsen goes into graphic 1830’s medical detail here, I mean I learned everything I didn’t want to know about childbed fever and how to amputate an arm. And you will be shaking your head (and shuddering) as the simple concept of washing your hands didn’t exist. Imagine the consequences of handling diseased corpses and then going from bed to bed checking pregnant woman!

In modern Boston Julia teams up with Henry, an ornery 89 year old with a cellar full of wine and boxes of documents and personal letters belonging to the previous owner of her house, all dating back to the time of the murders. -Henry was one of my favourite characters in the book. We also see the spark of a romance beginning with her cute dog walking neighbor.

As the book progressed we spent more and more time in 1830 until those sections took over completely. I actually would have preferred a more balanced split between the two as modern day Julia was left a little vague and honestly I was ready for the olden day mystery to wrap up long before it did. The attention to the detail of that time is astonishing, especially the medical stuff and the brutality of living in a Boston slum.

Gerritsen‘s writing is always topnotch, with persistent suspense, a touch of romance, well developed characters, attention to detail and as usual she puts her medical training to chilling good use. Cheers.