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."