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Two killers at large in the 19th century

One is human, the "West End Reaper," the other a disease that preys upon the poor.

Tess Gerritsen's novel enlists some actual historical figures.
Tess Gerritsen's novel enlists some actual historical figures.Read moreKelly Campbell Photography

By Tess Gerritsen

Ballantine. 370 pp. $25.95

Reviewed by Sheri Melnick


The Bone Garden

, physician-author Tess Gerritsen departs from her critically acclaimed Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles series to take readers on a journey to the past and the medical horrors of Boston in 1830, when, after giving birth, women frequently died from "childbed fever." Physicians themselves were often the culprits in spreading the bacteria.

Fast-forward to present-day suburban Boston, where Julia Hamill buys a 130-year-old home and finds a skeleton in her garden. This isn't just any skeleton - it is that of a woman murdered more than a century earlier. The mystery behind the skeleton haunts Julia, but she's also disturbed to learn that the house she bought was on the market precisely because its previous owner, elderly Hilda Chamblett, was found dead in her backyard, apparently from natural causes.

So Julia contacts one of Hilda's surviving relatives - Henry Page, an elderly man living in Maine - and pays him a visit. He shows her a cache of letters and newspaper clippings that once belonged to Hilda. Through these, Julia discovers the world of Boston in 1830, when Oliver Wendell Holmes was writing of the brutal murders committed by the West End Reaper.

Gerritsen's primary story-line tells the tale of 17-year-old Rose Connolly, a Boston seamstress who witnesses the horrific death of her sister, Aurnia, from childbed fever after delivering her daughter, Margaret. Aurnia's husband wants nothing to do with the child, but Rose is determined to somehow provide for her.

With realistic detail, Gerritsen describes the unimaginable living conditions endured then by the poor. Almost as frightening is the practice of stealing corpses for use in medical schools. Juxtaposed against this is the appearance of a killer who marks his victims with a knife wound in the shape of a cross.

The West End Reaper has killed two nurses at the hospital where Aurnia gave birth. Only Rose Connolly and Norris Marshall, a medical student, have glimpsed the killer, clad in a dark flapping cape.

The suspense here involves much more than learning the identity of the Reaper. A wealthy attorney tracks Rose down to learn the whereabouts of Margaret, but Rose has reason to believe that the people who want to find Margaret are not only powerful, but may wish to harm the child.

After all, why would someone want to find a child born to a poor immigrant servant and a Boston shopkeeper? Might there be a connection between the Reaper's murder spree and Margaret's birth?

Gerritsen's inclusion of actual historical characters lends her novel just what it needs for authenticity. Oliver Wendell Holmes was a medical student in Boston in the 1830s and later published

The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever

, in which he urged physicians and nurses to wash their hands between patients. And the Rev. William Channing, a well-known Boston abolitionist, was the minister preaching at Boston's Federal Street Church when medical student Norris Marshall attended services there.

While set largely in the 19th century, Gerritsen's latest isn't your usual historical fiction, principally because of the careful way events and characters of the past are linked to the contemporary story line. Richly plotted, with superbly developed characters, it's a suspense thriller likely to keep you reading into the wee hours