It all began with a voice in her head. Having written more than 30 novels in an illustrious career that’s spanned nearly four decades, Tess Gerritsen knew better than to tune it out. Instead, she tuned in—and then she committed that voice to paper. The result is The Spy Coast—the first book in a new series for Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. Inspired by the community of retired spies that make their home in her coastal Maine town—and following an unexpected return to Rizzoli & Isles with 2022’s Listen to Me—Gerritsen introduces an enigmatic new heroine.
Maggie Bird is living as a recluse on a chicken farm in New England after having left the CIA following a mission gone wrong. But when a dead body turns up in her driveway, the message is clear: somebody knows who she is, where she lives, and what she’s done.
With local authorities (deliberately) stymied, Maggie and the “Martini Club”—a small group of fellow former operatives—must put their old skills to the test. But solving this present-day murder mystery means looking to the past, and Maggie’s haunted history. Can she finally put those ghosts to rest or will her newfound solitude be forever shattered?
Tess Gerritsen was kind enough to reveal all the intel on her new spy thriller to Mystery Scene feature writer John B. Valeri.
John B. Valeri for Mystery Scene: The Spy Coast is the first in a new series (The Martini Club) following many years of having alternated Rizzoli & Isles books with standalone novels. What compelled you to enter into a new and continuing saga? And how did you endeavor to establish a world that could sustain both singular book and series storytelling?
Tess Gerritsen: The story was inspired by a peculiar feature of my town in Maine. Soon after I moved here, several decades ago, I discovered that a surprising number of CIA retirees live here. I've heard various explanations for why they've chosen Maine, and perhaps they're all true. ("It's a place where people respect your privacy. It's far from any nuclear targets. It's long been a location for safe houses.")
I thought about what stories they could tell, and wondered what retirement is like for them. That's when I heard the voice of Maggie Bird in my head: I'm not the woman I used to be. And that launched the novel for me, as I let Maggie's voice tell the story of her past, and of her troubled present. When I started writing the book, I didn't know it would turn into a series. It's the characters who pulled me in, who charmed me, and by the end of The Spy Coast, I wanted to watch what they did next.
You’ve written many books across a multitude of subgenres, from romantic suspense and historical fiction to police procedurals and medical/scientific thrillers. Here, you tackle a new area: espionage. Tell us about the real-life entry point into this enigmatic realm. How did you go about capturing the physical, emotional, and operative realities of the spy trade in an authentic way?
Instead of focusing on the technical and operational details of spycraft, I wanted to write about the emotional and psychological stresses of being a spy. How does it affect your friendships, your romantic relationships? How can you trust that this new friend you've made doesn't have secondary gain from the relationship?
My undergraduate degree in college was cultural anthropology, so that colors my approach whenever I write about a new occupation. I want to know what it's like to be part of the "tribe," and my research strategy was to start off by reading memoirs by retired spies. Of course I also researched operational details and global issues like the London Laundromat and Russian operations in the west, but it was Maggie's emotional journey that was the real heart of the story.
Readers will come to know your main character, Maggie Bird, in both her retirement years and the prime of her career as a spy. How did this construct allow you to explore age and gender stereotypes? In what ways does Maggie use these (mis)perceptions to her advantage throughout the different stages of her life?
That construct of past/present allowed me to show how Maggie became the woman she is today. At the start, we know her as only a Maine chicken farmer who happens to be very good with a rifle. As fresh details about her are revealed, the reader realizes she's more than just a farmer, and she has a group of friends, also retirees, who seem to be a bit peculiar as well. We start off thinking, "Oh, they're just old retired folks."
And that is how older people are so often viewed in American society: "They're just retired folks." That's the stereotype I want to smash in this book, a stereotype that, ironically enough, works to Maggie's advantage because she's underestimated by local police chief Jo Thibodeau. Being underestimated, it turns out, is actually a superpower for Maggie and her friends.
Despite her extraordinary skills and training, Maggie is human—and therefore subject to the same insecurities and weaknesses as the rest of us. How does her personal life create opportunities for peril—and, in non-spoiler terms, what hold does the past have on the present?
That's exactly how I wanted to approach the espionage genre: When the personal collides with the professional, the result is catastrophe. From the start, I felt that Maggie is a haunted person, that she lives with ghosts from her past. My primary emotion as I wrote her character was sadness. As a working spy, she's quick, she's smart, she's capable, she's patriotic. But as a human being, she's vulnerable. As are we all.
The book’s primary setting, coastal Maine, is one that you’re intimately familiar with. In a general sense, how do you see place as an enhancement to plot—and, more specifically, in what ways does The Spy Coast’s desolate midwinter backdrop underscore the tonal and thematic elements you were hoping to capture?
I've lived in Maine for 33 years now, and I'm so glad to finally be able to feature this beautiful landscape in a story. There's an almost mythical element to this place, perhaps inspired by Stephen King stories. There are small, isolated towns and harsh weather and stoic Yankees here. There's also a mixing of locals and people from away, with inevitable conflicts between them. So yes, it is a wonderful setting for a story—or a series.
Given the international implications at play, there’s also a bit of globetrotting throughout the story. What was your approach to capturing a rich sense of international culture and intrigue despite the fragmented nature of the narrative?
I've been to all the places I write about in The Spy Coast: Bangkok, Istanbul, Gümüslük, London, Como. My visits there were never for research, but always for pleasure, and sometimes the most authentic way to describe a place isn't about geographical accuracy, but rather about sensory memory. What did Bangkok smell like? What does the sand feel like on a Turkish beach? It's those memories I mined for the story, because those are the same memories Maggie would have as well.
During the writing of this book, you shared on social media that you’d reached a point of frustration and uncertainty—which you said inevitably happens at some stage of every project. How have you learned to overcome these nagging doubts? And what advice would you offer other, perhaps less seasoned, writers, in terms of conquering their own inner demons?
I have those doubts with every book I write! In fact, I just went through a similarly tough patch with the book I'm finishing now. My chaotic process is partly to blame. I don't have an outline, and I write by the seat of my pants, which means I don't know what happens next. I have to get there to find out, and then I get stuck. The way I've dealt with it in the past is to simply walk away from the story. Take a walk, take a long drive, lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling. It's always scary because it feels like I've "lost the touch," that I'll never write another book. But then I remember that I've done this 30 times before, and I've always managed to get unstuck. I just have to have faith that I will manage it this time as well.
Leave us with a teaser: What comes next?
I'm finishing up The Summer Guests, a sequel. Once again it features Maggie and her band of retired spies, as well as police chief Jo Thibodeau, working together to find a missing girl—only to uncover a skeleton of a long-lost woman.
Tess Gerritsen began to write fiction and in 1987, her first novel, Call After Midnight. Her first medical thriller, Harvest, was released in hardcover in 1996, and it marked her debut on the New York Times bestseller list. Her novels have hit bestseller lists ever since. Among her titles are Gravity, The Surgeon, Vanish, The Bone Garden, and The Spy Coast. Her books have been translated into 40 languages, and more than 40 million copies have been sold around the world. Her series of novels featuring homicide detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles inspired the hit TNT television series Rizzoli & Isles, starring Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander. Gerritsen has won the Nero Wolfe Award (for Vanish) and the Rita Award (for The Surgeon). She and her son Josh produced a feature-length documentary, Magnificent Beast, about the ancient origins of the pig taboo. It aired on PBS channels around the country. Their previous film, Island Zero, was a feature-length horror movie that was released in 2018.
John B. Valeri is a lifelong lover of books and the people who write them and the host of Central Booking, where he interviews authors and other industry insiders. Valeri is a contributor to CrimeReads, Crimespree Magazine, Criminal Element, Mystery Scene Magazine, The National Book Review, The New York Journal of Books, The News and Times, The Strand Magazine, and Suspense Magazine. He regularly moderates author events and book discussions at bookstores and libraries throughout Connecticut, and serves on the planning committee for CrimeCONN, a one-day reader/writer mystery conference cosponsored by Mystery Writers of America/New York Chapter.