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Born as Terry Gerritsen to a Chinese immigrant and a Chinese-American seafood chef, Tess grew up in San Diego, California. Gerritsen often dreamt of writing her own Nancy Drew novels.
Although she longed to be a writer, her family had reservations about the sustainability of a writing career, prompting Gerritsen to choose a career in medicine. In 1975, Gerritsen graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. in Anthropology, intrigued by the ranges of human behavior. She went on to study medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. She received her medical degree in 1979 and started work as a physician in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Gerritsen is married to Jacob Gerritsen, who is also a physician, and has two sons with him. Now retired from medicine, she writes full-time and lives in Camden, Maine.
While on maternity leave, she began to write fiction. She submitted a short story, "On Choosing the Right Crack Seed," to Honolulu Magazine’s statewide fiction contest which won first prize and received $500 for it. The story focused on a young male reflecting on a difficult relationship with his mother. Gerritsen claimed the story allowed her to deal with her own childhood turmoil, including the repeated suicide attempts of her mother.
Inspired by the romance novels she enjoyed reading while working as a doctor, Gerritsen’s first novels were romantic thrillers. After two unpublished 'practice novels', Call After Midnight was bought by publisher Harlequin Intrigue in 1986 and published a year later. This was followed by eight more romantic suspense thriller novels for Harlequin Intrigue and Harper Paperbacks. Gerritsen also co-wrote a screenplay, "Adrift", which aired as a CBS Movie of the Week in 1993, starring Kate Jackson and Bruce Greenwood.
In 1996, Gerritsen published her first medical thriller novel, Harvest. Having already decided to pursue the medical thriller genre, the plot was inspired by a conversation with a retired homicide detective who had recently been travelling in Russia. He told her that young orphans were vanishing from the streets of Moscow, and police believed the kidnapped children were being shipped abroad as organ donors. Harvest was Gerritsen’s first novel to be published in hardcover, and it marked her debut on the New York Times bestseller list at #13. Following Harvest, Gerritsen wrote three subsequent bestselling medical thrillers, Life Support, Bloodstream, and Gravity.
In 2001, Gerritsen's first crime thriller, The Surgeon, was released; it introduced the character of homicide detective Jane Rizzoli. Although Rizzoli was only a secondary character in The Surgeon, with Detective Thomas Moore as the protagonist, the character has been a central focus of a series of nine novels pairing her with medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles. The books inspired the TNT Rizzoli & Isles television series starring Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander.
- Call After Midnight (1987); part of Murder & Mayhem compilation
- Under the Knife (1990); part of Murder & Mayhem compilation
- Whistleblower (1992)
- Stolen (1992)
- Never Say Die (1992)
- Presumed Guilty (1993)
- Peggy Sue Got Murdered/Girl Missing (1994)
- In Their Footsteps (1994); part of Murder & Mayhem compilation
- Thief of Hearts (1995)
- Keeper of the Bride (1996)
- Harvest (1996)
- Life Support (1997)
- Bloodstream (1998)
- Gravity (1999)
Rizzoli & Isles series
- The Surgeon (2001); without Maura
- The Apprentice (2002)
- The Sinner (2003)
- Body Double (2004)
- Vanish (2005)
- The Mephisto Club (2006)
- The Bone Garden (2007); loosely a part of the series; without Jane Clementine Rizzoli
- The Keepsake / Keeping the Dead (2008)
- Ice Cold / The Killing Place (2010)
- Freaks (2011); short story
- The Silent Girl (2011)
- Last To Die (2012)