Interview with Peter Robinson and Tess Gerritsen

Two of the very best writers working in the suspense genre today are Peter Robinson and Tess Gerritsen. Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks series welcomes its 19th book with the upcoming Bad Boy. And Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli & Isles series just saw the publication of Ice Cold, the 8th entry. These two authors, both at the height of their craft, share a well-deserved reputation for their skill at characterization and setting within their stories. They also have just both seen their books turned into television series. But as much as they have in common as suspense novelists, they have as many differences as well. Below, they answer questions about their work, their characters and the state of suspense novels today.

Q: Tess, you have just published your eighth Rizzoli & Isles novel. And Peter, your 19th Inspector Banks! Do you feel like you’re still discovering new things about your main characters? How do you keep the characters so fresh for readers and fresh for yourselves?

Tess: Because I never plan anything out ahead of time, I’m always in the process of learning about my characters. Without a biographical sketch to guide me, I discover things about my heroines as the stories unfold. Only in Body Double did I discover that Maura’s mother was a serial killer. Only in The Mephisto Club did I find out Jane’s dad is involved in some hanky-panky with a bimbo. And that’s what keeps the stories fun to write because I never know who is going to come into their lives and who is going to cause complications.

Peter: I think I keep Banks fresh by discovering new things about him, or by giving him new problems to solve, both in his job and in his personal life. In Bad Boy, he’s travelling in the American Southwest, taking a much-needed break after the events of All the Colors of Darkness. It is a landscape he has never encountered before, and he learns from it. He also learns to put his problems in perspective and heal himself in the process. Of course, there a new and more serious problems waiting when he gets home, but that’s another matter.

Q: Where do the ideas for cases come from? Are any based in reality?

Tess: Most of my books are inspired by true stories. Vanish, for instance, came from an article I’d read about a young woman found dead in a bathtub, with empty pill bottles nearby. Police assumed it was a suicide, and she was zipped into a body bag and sent to the morgue. Where, a few hours later, she woke up. The idea of waking up in a body bag or morgue refrigerator was so creepy that I knew it had to be turned into a book.

Likewise, Ice Cold was inspired by a true incident that happened in 1968 in Utah. It’s now referred to as the “Dugway Incident.” That March morning, sheep farmers drove out to their pastures to discover thousands of sheep lying dead, for reasons no one could explain. And not just sheep died — birds fell out of the sky and rodents were found dead as well. Thirty years later, the file on the Dugway Incident was declassified by the U.S. government, and the explanation was something that truly unsettled me, because it could happen again. That became the core around which I wrote Ice Cold.

Peter: I suppose some are based in reality, at least in part. Quite often a newspaper article gives me the trigger, but it’s usually a very minor thing, not the big, front-page crime stories. In the case of Bad Boy, it was an article in the Guardian Weekend magazine about parents turning in their children for drug possession or, in this case, possession of a handgun. It didn’t take much imagination to figure out how things could easily go awry and provide the basis for a plot.

Q: Your main characters are the classic tough on the outside detectives that you have both infused with complicated inner lives that inform their work. Can you discuss the fine line writers walk when depicting their characters’ vulnerabilities? And how does this differ when writing female characters versus male characters?

Tess: As a woman who once worked in what was a very male-dominated field (medicine, back in the 70s). I understand why working women have to hide their weaknesses. If our colleagues think we’re vulnerable, we lose credibility in their eyes. So women in these fields adapt. They learn to project strength and invulnerability. But we are, after all, human beings and the same insecurities and fears that beset all women also beset women cops and women doctors.

As for male characters, I think that men are in some ways just as vulnerable as women, but are even more determined not to reveal it. I raised two sons, and I know that even though they’re bigger and stronger than I am, they’re still little boys inside. They still cry, they still hurt. So whenever I write a male character, no matter how “heroic” he may be, I think of my sons. And I remember that every man was once a little boy.

Peter: Banks is certainly a sensitive and vulnerable character, especially where romance is concerned, but he also needs to be tough and somewhat thick-skinned to do his job. I think he brings elements of compassion and humanity to the job, too. He’s not one to talk much about his feelings, but he sees no need to hide them or pretend that he doesn’t have them. Annie Cabbot, being a woman, has had a much tougher time getting to her position of Detective Inspector, and she knows that she has to show she’s tougher than most of the men she works with in order to get ahead and gain respect. But Annie certainly has her feminine side and manages to separate job and life most of the time. She had a bohemian upbringing and maintains a keen interest in art and these balance her on-the-job toughness and occasional flashes of rage.

Q: In your newest books, we find Rizzoli and Banks in deeply personal cases; in Ice Cold, Jane Rizzoli is faced with the possible death of her partner Isles and in Bad Boy, Banks must work to save his kidnapped daughter. What makes you decide to put your characters in these fraught positions and how do your fans react?

Tess: There is no better test of character than when you’re tossed into crisis. That’s when we see one’s true colors shine through. So I try my best to make my characters personally involved in the plot, in a way that stresses them and tests them.

Peter: It’s part of the nature of what we write. It’s all very well having Banks and Annie running around solving crimes, but at some point you have to up the stakes. I hadn’t written much about Banks’s relationship with his daughter Tracy for a while, so it was interesting to revisit her and find out what a bitter, disillusioned and reckless young woman she has become. I think she learns a great deal from her experiences in this book and grows up a lot in a short time. Tracy is basically a bright, decent young woman, and it will be interesting to see where her relationship with her father goes after Bad Boy.

Q: Who were your influences when you first started writing these characters?

Tess: For Jane Rizzoli, my primary influence was the female cops that I’ve interviewed. They’re a tough breed, and they have to prove themselves every day to their male colleagues. The other influence was my own inherent sense of “otherness,” of being the outsider. As an Asian American growing up in a white neighborhood, I never felt I really fit in, and that discomfort is something that Jane Rizzoli shares.

Maura Isles is very much a reflection of my own personality. I’m trained in science, believe in logic, and like to think there’s an explanation for everything. And I’m truly not really at ease with other people. She’s my mirror.

Peter: My influences were mostly European-Georges Simenon’s Maigret, Sjowall and Wahloo’s Martin Beck, and Nicolas Freeling’s Van der Valk. There’s probably a bit of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer in the mix, too.

Q: After so many years of portraying your characters on the page, you’ve both just had television series made from your books. “Rizzoli & Isles” just debuted on TNT network and “Aftermath” has just been filmed for ITV in the UK. What have your experiences been like seeing Jane Rizzoli, Maura Isles and Alan Banks come to life? Were you able to visit the sets and meet the actors?

Tess: It’s every writer’s dream to see their characters come to life on screen, and I am thrilled to see it happen. Actors can never completely match our mental images of our characters, so we have to make adjustments when we watch the adaptations. But overall, it’s been a dream project for me because I really like the writers involved in the show. Janet Tamaro, the executive producer and head writer, is very much like Jane Rizzoli. She “gets” Jane, and that shows in the dialogue and in Jane’s persona onscreen. When I flew out to watch the filming, the crew showed me every courtesy, and I felt welcomed as the creator of these two fictional women. As Janet puts it, I’m the birth mother and she’s the stepmother. So my creations will have to do what Janet tells them to do from now on since they’re living in “her” house-but Jane and Maura still are, and always will be, my creations.

Peter: Yes, I spent quite a bit of time on location in Yorkshire this spring and found the experience fascinating. I’ve never come across such a hard-working bunch of people before. Though I was the writer (not always the most welcome visitor to a TV or movie shoot), everyone went out of their way to include my wife and I, and to answer any questions we had. We even got walk on parts! I had been apprehensive at first because I knew it wouldn’t be the same as the book I wrote (Aftermath), but I soon got used to that idea and started thinking of it not so much as my book but as good television, which I think it will be. The actors are terrific, though I had to get used to the idea that they didn’t necessarily look the way I imagined them to look. Of course, I didn’t get to see everyone play a scene, but Stephen Tompkinson makes a fine Banks and Andrea Lowe is excellent as Annie. From the little I saw, Charlotte Riley makes a very scary Lucy Payne, too.

Tess Gerritsen is a physician and an internationally bestselling author. She gained nationwide acclaim for her first novel of suspense, the New York Times bestseller Harvest. She is also the author of the bestsellers The Keepsake, The Bone Garden, The Mephisto Club, Vanish, Body Double, The Sinner, The Apprentice, The Surgeon, Life Support, Bloodstream, and Gravity. Tess Gerritsen lives in Maine. Visit her website at