The Bone Garden by Tess Gerritsen is a thrilling novel which follows the terrorist rampage of the West End Reaper in 1830’s Boston, a murderer who’s victims are all related to the local medical college. One of the medical students, Norris Marshall, meets the sister of a patient, Rose Connolly, and they become linked to these crimes and each other. Rose’s sister has just died from child-bed fever, and Rose is not only left to raise the infant and but also keep her safe from a mysterious entity who seems determined to kidnap her. Norris, Rose, and their friend, the (now) famous Oliver Wendell Holmes, take it upon themselves to discover the identity of the murder and the person behind the attempted kidnapping.
The second aspect of this story is set in the present, just outside of Boston, where newly-divorced Julia Hamill discovers a body in her garden, and opens up a mystery nearly two centuries old. She begins looking through boxes of letters left with the home, and finds the story of Rose and Norris.
My favorite parts of this book were the details provided about the 1830’s medical school, and medicine of the time. It reminded me a lot of my History of Medicine class in college. Gerritsen does an excellent job of describing the horrors of child-bed fever, which could kill 1 in 4 women who entered the hospital maternity wards. As she points out at the end of the novel, Oliver Wendell Holmes was the first to discover that the cause was the unclean hands of the doctors themselves. He noted that those mothers attended by midwives were less likely to suffer from the puerperal fever, while those attended by seemingly better trained medical students were more likely to die. Well, as it turns out, the medical students wouldn’t wash their hands after autopsies and dissections, because their was no concept of a germ theory. Gerritsen adds other true facts about the history of medicine, such as the resurrectionists who robbed bodies from fresh graves to provide the schools with cadavers. It is obvious that Gerritsen, a physician herself, is very proud of the role doctors play, and the momentous progress that has been made. The Bone Garden is smart, suspenseful, and a lot of fun.