When Karen Rose enrolled at the University of Maryland, the one thing she knew was that she "didn't want to dissect."
It's a funny confession for an author who has written a 494-page novel about a killer who tortures victims with a filleting knife.
Rose sees the humor in it. Whenever her two daughters would tell her about some tiny creature they'd trained a scalpel on at school, she'd try to change the subject. They'd say, "Mom — you're the one who asked how many bodies you could stick in a freezer."
"You Belong to Me," out Tuesday, is Rose's 12th novel. It's the first in a series set in and around Baltimore, including, in this case, a fictitious village on the Eastern Shore filled with brutal macho boys (and men) and dysfunctional families. It pivots on a psychopath who starts killing for revenge and instantly discovers that he likes it.
But Rose doesn't write thrillers in the vein of "The Silence of the Lambs."
By … oh, page 13 … you can tell the difference between a Rose novel and a Thomas Harris wannabe. Rose's heroine, Lucy Trask, is a medical examiner who moonlights as an electric violinist. When the hero, an Afghan vet and homicide cop named J.D. Fitzpatrick, sees Lucy at a crime scene, she has just discovered a corpse that the killer has planted in a park near her apartment.
J.D. is cool enough to note, "The long hair that she'd pulled back in a simple pony tail was a reddish gold that flickered under the bright CSU lights, like little licks of fire." After training his eyes on her "classically fine" features, he concludes: "That face he'd remember. Those legs he'd certainly remember."
For her part, Lucy muses pages later that J.D. is "tall, dark and handsome all sewn up in a very tidy package. … He was lean where a lot of cops were bulky. Still, he filled the space around him, his air confident. Almost dangerous. That he was kind made him more so."
Rose wants you to figure that Lucy and J.D. will connect as lovers and team up to catch the killer. That's because Rose is a star in the "romantic suspense" genre — a subgenre, really, of the romance-novel phenomenon, which accounts, by some estimates, for 40 percent to 45 percent of all books sold.
Novels like "You Belong to Me" mix gritty police-procedural details with lusty, heartfelt courtships. What makes them romantic, in Rose's view, is that she guarantees her readers a happy ending.
"If you pick up a book and know the hero and heroine will have a happy ending, then it becomes more about the process of them becoming a couple," she said.
That's not her only contract with her fans. Her enormous casts of characters enable her to maintain life-or-death tension despite her readers' faith that the good-looking leads will survive.
"It's almost a code," Rose explains. "The pets will be OK. Small children will be OK — teenagers, maybe not. Everyone else is fair game. Even main characters die sometimes, except for the hero and heroine."
Rose is far from callous about it.
She burst out crying when she watched that postmodern comedy-drama "Stranger Than Fiction," about a novelist (played by Emma Thompson) in the throes of killing off a character (played by Will Ferrell).
"My daughter was like, 'It's OK, mom,' " she said. "But Emma Thompson had only killed eight characters — I've killed hundreds! Every now and again, somebody dies in a book, and it really just rips my heart out."
Rose's characters caught the eye of her new publisher, Kara Welsh, the head of New American Library and its Signet imprint.
"We had always hoped to get her on the Signet list," Welsh said in an email. "Her characters feel very real — the way they talk, they way they act and the choices they make — and that makes them interesting and inviting to the reader. … When she came to us, it was a natural choice for her to start a [new] set of characters so she would have a whole new batch of stories to tell."
The Baltimore setting was Rose's idea. "I've always loved Baltimore," she said. "Just geographically, it gives you both mountains and ocean within a couple of hours of driving. It's a very vibrant city, with historic things and current stuff and fun landmarks like the Bromo Seltzer Tower — I haven't used that yet, but I will. And people live in the city: They don't just work here and then go somewhere else."
She also loves inventing small towns like "Anderson Ferry" on the Eastern Shore. "The irony of living in a small town is that you think you know everybody. It gives you a false sense of confidence and security." She exploits the way village people "hold close to things they don't want you to know, from 'I stole a nickel from my mom when I was 10' to 'I've got 10 bodies buried in my backyard.' "
Rose lives near Sarasota, Fla. But she was born right here, in St. Agnes Hospital. She grew up partly in Severn and Greenbelt and New Carrollton. Then her parents bought a house in Bowie, where she spent her junior high and high school years. Her father, who died last summer, worked for the National Security Agency at Fort Meade. (She never knew exactly what he did.) When the University of Maryland admitted her, he told Rose that chemical engineering sounded promising — especially because that major came with a four-year scholarship.
"I had gone to Eleanor Roosevelt in Greenbelt, a science and technology school, and I did like chemistry and math — not dissecting!" The bonds she formed at the university — chemical and otherwise — would enrich the rest of her life.
She met her future husband at the University of Maryland. "We did all the Baltimore touristy things when we were dating. We went to Harborplace to eat good soup when it still had mom-and-pop soup shops." Her academic training still pays off now that she's creating stories.
"Karen is great at plotting," Welsh said — as you might expect of an author who once bore the nickname "Flow Chart Queen."
When she was a chemical engineer, she adored flow charts. "It gave me the feeling of a world at peace when I could chart everything with arrows," Rose said. As a writer, she uses timelines and spreadsheets to make sure that her peripatetic characters stay plausible, and to keep track of multiple killings.
In her youth, Rose read Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Nancy Drew.
She lost her reading habit until she flew to Japan and Germany while working for Procter & Gamble Co. That was a couple of decades ago. She had recently become a mother; six weeks after that, doctors diagnosed her husband's cancer. "I had never been afraid to fly, but I kept thinking what would happen if something happened to the plane."
To combat the fear, she talked with anyone seated beside her. Her chatter irritated one man so much that he bellowed, "Lady, buy a book!" It was terrific advice. She devoured everything she could find: John Grisham, Dave Barry, even paperback westerns. Then she stumbled on a romance novel — "and I knew when I finished the book that it was a genre I would read forever."
In those pre-Kindle days, she couldn't pack enough books to last a flight to Asia or Europe and a stay in Japan or Germany. Rather than overdose on CNN International, she began jotting down stories to amuse herself.
One day, while vacationing with friends in Minneapolis, she couldn't get a scene out of her head. She sank into a futon with her laptop and started writing a novel. She needed to know what happened next.
"I didn't tell anybody I was writing for five years, except my husband; I was afraid people would laugh." But she was driven. She wrote her first six books "while I was either working full time or starting my own business — I created databases for businesses to keep their product recipes — or working as a high school teacher, which I started to do because I needed insurance benefits for the family."
Maintaining her balance wasn't always easy. Her psychologist husband provided counseling to sex offenders — until one of his clients tried to kill him. He became a stay-at-home dad, and then the family's second high-school teacher. They lived in the Midwest and North Carolina before settling near Sarasota.
When Rose started writing, she didn't think she'd specialize in romantic suspense. One of her early readers said, "You really have a very suspenseful voice." She went all the way with that suggestion. She studied her favorite thrillers "like problems in reverse-engineering — reading them from the back forwards, just to see how they did what they did."
She sold her first novel to a publisher right before Christmas 2001. When she submitted a proposal for a second book, her editor advised her to shift "from a more white-collar thing to a serial-killer novel." Everything clicked — and she landed on USA Today's best-seller list.
Her allegiance to her genre runs deep. When she began reading romance novels, "I had a young daughter, and my husband had just come off chemo. I needed a place to go. I needed a happy ending. I am a big believer in happy endings."
She rounded the curve at the end of the path and slowed to a stop, her serenity suddenly gone. "Oh, no," she murmured sadly. "Not again." It was Mr. Pugh, sitting at one of the chess tables, his tweed hat illuminated by the streetlamp behind him.
She detoured off the path, jogging to the green where her old friend had spent so many hours checkmating all challengers. Those days were long gone. Now he sat alone in the night, his head down, the collar of his coat pulled up around his face.
She sighed. He'd wandered out of his apartment again. She slowed her pace as she drew close, approaching quietly. "My. Pugh?" She touched his shoulder gently, taking care not to startle him. He didn't like to be startled. "It's time to go home."
Then she frowned. Normally he'd look up, that lost expression in his eyes, and she'd take him back to Barb, who was so weary from caring for him all the time. Tonight he didn't look up. He was so still. So very still. Her heart sank. Oh no. No, no, no.
She reached to press her fingers to his neck, then covered her mouth to muffle a scream when his body slumped over the table, his hat tumbling off his head. For a moment she could only stare in horror. His head was misshapen, caked with dried blood. And his face … She stumbled backward. Bile burned her throat.
Oh God. Oh God. His face was gone. So were his eyes.
— From "You Belong to Me"
Born: 1964, St. Agnes Hospital, Baltimore
Education: Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Greenbelt; University of Maryland, B.S. in chemical engineering
Family: married, two daughters (ages 21 and 17)
Current residence: Sarasota County, Fla.
Quote: "When you write about the villain doing awful things, it can bind your mind, and you do need to step back. It does make it easier knowing I have this happy place where I can go to watch a fun movie and cuddle with my kids — they're really too old for cuddling now, but sometimes they indulge me."