BGH Book Club: The Surgeon

When one lists the names of the “great” horror writers, Tess Gerritsen isn’t usually mentioned. However, after reading The Surgeon, I believe her name should be connected to the genre. I was drawn to Gerritsen’s book by the cover - black and red blotches of color outline the silhouette of a woman - a woman who, as the reader will learn, is prey for the very vicious serial killer that gives the novel its name.

The story opens with Detective Jane Rizzoli and Detective Thomas Moore investigating a horrific murder scene. A young woman has been butchered in her own home. The killer has apparently entered her bedroom very early in the morning while the victim was still asleep. Chloroform had been used to subdue her and, in an eerily calculated manner, her uterus has been removed. To make the scene even more disturbing (as if this could even be possible), Dr. Maura Isles has found, upon examining the victim, that the removal of the organ occurred while the victim was still alive and conscious of what was happening to her.

The book becomes a race against the clock as Rizzoli and Moore attempt to piece together the evidence so that they may catch the Surgeon before he strikes again. But, what kind of horror story would it make if they actually succeeded? Not a very good one. So, the plot thickens as they discover that this is not the first time the killer has struck, and, lucky for them, one of his previous victims is still alive. Dr. Catherine Cordell was once at the hands of the Surgeon. He was a young medical intern who had drugged her when he came to her house to ask for “advice” as to how he could be a better doctor. Cordell had managed to escape when the killer had left her bedroom. When he returned Cordell was holding the gun that she kept in her nightstand. His murder is what allowed Cordell to move to Boston and continue her medical career.

So, how can the murders be continuing if the Surgeon is already dead? Well, Rizzoli is convinced that there is more to the story than Cordell is telling police. The idea of a copycat just seems too simple considering how closely the current killer knows the Surgeon’s methods. As a result, a hypnotist is called in so that Cordell may be able to reach into the deepest recesses of her memory for any other information. Which, she does. Under hypnosis, Cordell remembers two voices in her apartment that night, and Moore and Rizzoli discover that the Surgeon’s partner is out for vengeance against the woman who killed the only man who truly understood him.

Cordell is then tortured both mentally and physically by the killer. Photos of the Surgeon’s newest victims appear on her computer - women bound and frightened to death of what comes next. Finally, the killer goes so far as to brutally murder Cordell’s patient after Cordell had worked so hard to save her life.

Oh, and did I mention that while all of this plot development is happening, you are occasionally getting a glimpse into the killer’s mind? Gerritsen manages to differentiate his words from the rest of the book by putting them in italics - you learn of his obsession with blood, his need to avenge the death of his blood brother, as well as his obsession with Cordell. The cold rationality of his words - the fact that he believes in everything that he does - is incredibly terrifying and reminiscent of the most disturbing quotes from some of the most notorious serial killers.

As you read Gerritsen’s books, it is abundantly clear that she is a doctor. Dr. Maura Isles’ assessment of each and every victim (even though ninety percent of the medical terminology would be lost on most of the American population) draws the reader in. You can almost smell the menthol of the autopsy room as you hear medical term after medical term describe what has happened to the victim..

Between the perfectly formulated plot, the incredibly intriguing characters, and the gruesome murder scenes, Gerritsen’s book becomes just as enthralling as any good horror movie. The fear of the Surgeon’s victims is palpable, and one can’t help but feel chills as the murder scenes are so coldly described by the people who must witness them everyday - the police officers and the medical examiners. The addition of the killer’s thoughts every few chapters helps to round out the entire book - the physical nature of his acts is only made more horrifying by his coldly calculating words. I highly recommend The Surgeon to any horror fan.

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