The Sinner is Tess Gerritsen's third book featuring Boston cop Jane Rizzoli, but this time she introduces medical examiner Maura Isles as a major character (she was in the last book, but not as a viewpoint character). That gives the series a shot in the arm so that Rizzoli's negativity does not overrun it. However, Isles ups the "men are pigs" quotient to a new level. This time, it's not through her attitude but just the way she's written. Still, it's a good book with a meaty plot.
Two nuns are found bludgeoned in a seldom-used chapel at the Our Lady of Divine Light abbey. A young nun, seemingly the only one of tender age at this abbey, is dead, while an older one lies almost comatose. Isles and Rizzoli are called to the scene to investigate. Things with the young nun take an interesting, maternal turn, and the light of suspicion falls on the abbey's priest. But things may not be what they seem. Maura's ex-husband, an executive of a global charity that helps the poor, is back in town and trying to make things up with her. Does he have an ulterior motive? Throw in the murder and mutilation of an unidentified woman, and you may have the workings of a conspiracy. Why does the first scene of the book take place in India? These questions, and many more, will be answered, but perhaps at the cost of Maura's life.
The addition of Isles to the storyline gives Rizzoli a break from having to carry the series. The last two books have given us a lot of insight into Rizzoli's character; while she's interesting, piling the angst on her would quickly make the series grow old. Unfortunately, one thing Isles does is give Gerritsen the opportunity to pile on with the "women having to fight in a man's profession" problems (though granted, they aren't as prevalent as they are with Rizzoli). Another problem is that we now have two characters who are defined very prominently through their relationships with men (both of them dysfunctional, too, though at least one has a happy ending). Put all together, and it's a bit much.
That's not to say I didn't like her character, because I did. Perhaps it would grow a bit more tired if I was familiar with all of the other pathologist characters out there, but since I'm not, Isles is refreshing. I also believe that giving the book two viewpoints helps as well, as that's one of the things that made The Surgeon better than The Apprentice. It was nice to see a case that doesn't personally involve Rizzoli, allowing us to see how Rizzoli works when it's not all just about her. Given the problem that she's wrestling with in this book, that's probably a good thing.
As for the plot and writing of The Sinner, I'm glad to see that Gerritsen's toned down the blood and guts in this one. The autopsy scenes are still quite graphic, but those are really the only parts. On her previous books, I've commented that this is what CSI would be if there weren’t network censors. This time, there isn't really anything in the book that couldn't be on that show (of course, if that show still makes you nauseous, then beware this book as well).
Gerritsen's prose still grips tight and won't let go. I found myself reading huge chunks of this novel at once to find out what happened next. She knows exactly where to leave chapter breaks as revelation after revelation hits both the detectives and the reader. There are a few too many coincidences for my taste, but that didn't detract too much from my enjoyment of the book. The mystery is intricate with curveballs thrown at the reader as everything appears to point one way then turns on its head. Especially effective is a scene where Rizzoli gives a comeuppance to the father of the nun's child.
Nonetheless, Gerritsen's character work, with the exception of the flaws already mentioned, is very well done. While I don't like the definition by relationship that Gerritsen falls back on, I did enjoy the relationships themselves (the one exception is Maura's ex-husband, who always comes across as smarmy and annoying, even when his return is apparently without ulterior motive). The minor characters in the book are excellent as well, except for Korsak (the cop Rizzoli worked with in The Apprentice). We get yet another romantic entanglement, one that seems even more pointless after the end of the book. Worse still is that this is the only scene that we get with him. Gerritsen really needs to tone this stuff down.
The Sinner is an excellent mystery with good twists that keep you riveted and good characters who have only a few missteps to make them slightly less enjoyable. If you like detective thrillers, this series is definitely a good one, and The Sinner is a very good installment in it.