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Exciting 'Vanish' is another winner from Gerritsen

VANISH, by Tess Gerritsen, Ballantine, 336 pages, $24.95.

This is one more in a series of medical thrillers written by Tess Gerritsen, an M.D. who formerly practiced internal medicine and then developed an interest in writing and switched careers. In 1987, she began writing romantic suspense novels, but she changed to medical thrillers, many of which became bestsellers.

Her last four — "The Surgeon," "The Apprentice," "The Sinner" and "Body Double" — were not only masterpieces of the genre and very scary, they greatly benefit from her inside knowledge of the field of medicine. She also continued some of the characters from one novel to the next.

With her new book, "Vanish," Gerritsen, who is far better than Robin Cook, is big enough for her publisher to splash her portrait over the entire back of the jacket. The story, less scary than her others, is set in Boston and begins with Dr. Maura Isles, Boston medical examiner, who is about to perform an autopsy on a beautiful young woman who was pulled from the river.

Suddenly, when the corpse opens its eyes, Isles realizes that the woman is not dead. The woman is rushed to the hospital where very strange things happen. Within a short time she murders a security guard and takes several hostages, including homicide detective Jane Rizzoli, who as a patient is about to deliver her first baby.

The woman is precise, cool and in control — and no one has any idea who she is. After she calls a radio station to announce "The die is cast," a secret signal to a partner, police investigators converge on the scene. Rizzoli's husband, Gabriel Dean, is an FBI agent, so he becomes involved even though he is an emotional wreck.

Gerritsen intersperses the chapters about the hostage crisis with occasional chapters about an unknown group of young East European women who are unwittingly sold into prostitution. Some of these women are treated badly by their pimps, their violent customers, an older madame and the men who organized the ring. Only gradually does the connection between this ring and the hostage crisis unfold.

Jane Rizzoli is the real star of the story — attractive, witty and irreverent, yet a tough cop who is predictably uncomfortable when she is not in control of the situation. Gabriel quickly understands the possibility that his feisty wife might put her own life and the life of their unborn child in jeopardy in an effort to get the woman to give up the hostages. He also worries about the press and the public discovering that Jane is a cop — making it more likely that she might die.

The crisis is complicated when an unknown, confident stranger calmly walks undisturbed through barricades and into the building where the hostages are confined. The police have badly bungled the situation — and this man joins the woman in a pre-arranged standoff.

Gerritsen is at her best in developing the characters, all of whom are well-drawn and interesting — but the hostage crisis plot line is a bit tired. Nevertheless, Gerritsen's punchy, suspenseful narrative maintains interest throughout — and the dialogue is solid and often surprising. As with all her novels, things slowly fall into place as they work up to a convincing climax.

Still, this book doesn't measure up to the taut, agonizing, nail-biting "The Surgeon," surely her best and scariest novel to date.