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Author Talk; August 8, 2003

August 8, 2003

Tess Gerritsen talks about: THE SINNER

When I sit down to write a book, I try to tap into a vein of fear --- some premise, some situation, that raises the hair on the back of my neck or gives me a chill. With HARVEST, it was the fear of children being harmed. With GRAVITY, it was the fear of being trapped and dying in the claustrophobic confines of a space station. With THE SURGEON, it was the utter terror of waking up in your bed at night and hearing someone walking into your room.

In THE SINNER, I write about something that has terrified mankind for centuries. It was first described in 1550 BC in Egyptian writings. In 326 BC, it was described in Ancient Greece. It is mentioned numerous times in the Bible, where it was thought to be a punishment from God. What was this thing that so horrified ancient man, and continues to terrify us even in this modern age?

Hansen's Disease, otherwise known as leprosy.

Why did this disease --- rarely fatal, and not very contagious --- so horrify the ancients? Why were lepers so feared that in medieval times they were forced to wear a special cloak and ring a warning bell so that others might flee? It's because leprosy destroyed the face and hands. It could transform the most beautiful woman into a monster. Disfigured, cast out from society, the leper experienced the hell of a living death.

I first learned about leprosy when, as a child, I watched that old classic movie Ben-Hur. I was too young to understand what this disease was that the characters were talking about, but I distinctly remember the scene where the Roman guards open the door to a prison cell, peer inside, and recoil in absolute horror. I didn't need to see the object of their horror --- I could hear the fear in their voices, and knew that what they were gazing upon must surely have been frightening. They were looking at the mother and sister of Ben-Hur, now afflicted with leprosy.

Years later, while I was working as a physician in Hawaii and the South Pacific, I examined a number of elderly leprosy patients, irreversibly deformed by their disease. And even though I know leprosy is now treatable with antibiotics, it still gives me chills to think of what it must be like to watch your own fingers and toes melt away, to watch your face slowly collapse.

As a suspense writer, I've long wanted to weave this disease into one of my stories. But only when I sat down and began writing THE SINNER did I suddenly come up with a way to do it. The mystery opens in Boston, where Detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles are appalled by a shocking crime: two cloistered nuns have been brutally beaten by an unknown assailant. Rizzoli and Isles are about to discover that this seemingly senseless crime is in fact the work of a coldly logical mind. And that the disease leprosy will prove to be a vital clue to the killer's motives.