Book Review: The Shape of Night by Tess Gerritsen
By John ValeriOctober 15, 2019
Chances are the first association people make when they consider Tess Gerritsen is: Rizzoli & Isles. It’s understandable; not only has the formidable Boston duo—one a homicide detective and the other a medical examiner—featured in eleven of the author’s novels (while Rizzoli debuted in The Surgeon, Isles first appeared in The Apprentice), but there was a television show of the same name that aired for seven seasons on TNT. And yet Gerritsen has stayed true to her creative instincts, occasionally straying from her beloved series to pen ambitious standalones such as 2015’s Playing with Fire. And even before Rizzoli and Isles, Gerritsen—who was trained as a physician—wrote romantic suspense and medical thrillers.
Her newest, The Shape of Night, is a singular novel that introduces struggling cookbook author Ava Collette, who flees her Boston apartment for Maine, hoping distance will numb the unspeakable tragedy that threatens to consume her. It’s in the insular coastal village of Tucker Cove that she takes up temporary residence at a grand old home, Brodie’s Watch, after the previous tenant broke her lease unexpectedly. And while the house, which sits above the ocean, at first appears foreboding, Ava is soon taken with its grandeur—and its history. Brodie’s Watch, after all, is the namesake of Captain Jeremiah Brodie, whose legacy lives on despite his having drowned at sea more than a century ago. But when Ava begins to see an apparition bearing the captain’s likeness, she wonders if he’s a figment of her imagination.
Far past deadline on her forthcoming book but greatly inspired since arriving, Ava—who has been battling the bottle and losing—is both drawn to and repelled by this masculine figure, who promises pleasure and punishment in equal measure. These encounters become increasingly misogynistic, and Ava suspects that her lascivious lover, if he’s even real, may have malevolent intent. She is silenced by her shame, however, and says nothing until disturbing (if not entirely surprising) developments hint that a flesh-and-blood killer may also be stalking the oceanside. Consequently, Ava allows a paranormal team to investigate the property while doing her own research into the house’s peculiar past. Together, they uncover a terrifying secret: no woman who has lived in Brodie’s Watch has survived to tell about it. Will Ava share their fate, or will she live to tell?
Gerritsen does a masterful job of creating and maintaining suspense, revealing tantalizing bits of Ava’s own history along with the house’s. The result is a double haunting, both psychological and physical in manifestation, which renders Ava a vulnerable character, if not always a likable one (read: human). The first-person narration underscores this point, inviting readers’ sympathy as well as our skepticism. If Ava doesn’t know if she’s a reliable reporter, how, then, do we? Beyond the requisite death and debauchery, Gerritsen—whose father worked as a cook in the family’s seafood restaurant—serves up some serious food porn, which ensures that hunger pangs have their place among the smorgasbord of primal needs. This serves the story well while allowing momentary reprieves from its overall intensity.
The Shape of Night finds Tess Gerritsen in fine form. While the majority of her books are grounded in an impressive knowledge of police and medical procedure (and thereby what can and cannot be proved), this one liberates her to explore the deepest, darkest corners of the mind. The writing itself is both subtle and sublime, with erotic flourishes that are reminiscent of her earliest works. But Gerritsen’s true seductive powers lie within her ability to draw you into a world so real that it jumps off the page and into your consciousness, almost as if a ghost of itself.