In January 2006, The New York Times Magazine serialized a
new work by Patricia Cornwell. That story became AT RISK, the
latest stand-alone thriller in her swelling body of work. Even
though the famous Kay Scarpetta, Cornwell's series star, doesn't
make an appearance, fans will find themselves drawn to the new
Cornwell has been writing for decades. Those who have read her
books and followed her career know that a few of her works, as with
most prolific writers, were not as successful as others. Then she
seemed to regain her early passion to tell a fascinating story,
people it with fleshed-out characters, develop a well-structured
plot and give readers just enough background without slowing the
novels' pace. AT RISK is another novel, albeit a short one, that is
proof of this upswing.
The narrative begins in Boston where we are introduced to Winston
"Win" Garano, a Massachusetts state police investigator. He's on
his way to fulfill a command performance in the office of Monique
Lamont, the District Attorney. But Win is in Knoxville, Tennessee
attending a special course offered by the National Forensic
Academy. A telephone call from the DA's press secretary tells him
to be on the next flight to Boston. When Win asks for a reason,
he's told, "Because she said so."
Lamont is a smart, strong, ambitious woman who wants to be governor
and will stop at nothing to reach her goals. She's a political
animal, and to Win's mind, "This is the latest, the worst of her
political maneuvering...or what he sometimes views as her
fantasies, all of it radiating from her insatiable ambition and
need to control." Symbolically, her personality is reflected in her
passion for glass, which surrounds her --- even her desk is glass.
"Art glass, stained glass, Venetian glass, new glass, old glass.
When sunlight fills her office, it turns into a prismatic fire,
flashing, winking, glowing, sparkling in a spectrum of colors,
distracting people, amazing them" --- which is exactly how she
When the two finally get together that evening for dinner, sparks
fly and tempers flare. She explains that the governor has burdened
her with a "plan" to garner funds: "If we're going to get fifty
million dollars to build a new crime lab...we have to get
attention, show the public, the legislators, we're completely
justified in upgrading technology, hiring more scientists, buying
more lab equipment, building the biggest DNA database in the
country, maybe even the world." Sure, " 'DNA is as old as time,'
she starts in. 'And ancestral DNA can take the John Doe out of John
Doe cases.' " She goes on to explain, as if to a child, that for
every perp they get off the street, "society is less at
risk,' hence the name she chose for the project.
When she tells Win to open a cold case in Knoxville he begins to
understand why she insisted he go to Tennessee in the first place.
"I happen to be sent down south...and suddenly you've decided to
solve some cold case from down there." He is both stunned and angry
and again wants to know why.
"[We] needed...a murder and someone special to work on it. You're
in Knoxville, why not see what unsolved cases they might have, and
there we are. An elderly woman beaten to death...apparently a
burglary gone bad. This one apparently sensational at the time, now
cold and forgotten as the victim." Twenty years have passed since
Vivian Finlay was viciously killed. But Lamont pushes on. This
"works out well for a number of reasons. A failure down there won't
be as obvious as one up here...the way we play it, while you were
attending the Academy, you heard about this case and suggested
Massachusetts could assist, try this new DNA analysis, help them
When Win begins to put the puzzle together, the picture that
emerges is quite ugly. He becomes aware that his boss is talking
about "DNA technology that genetically matches patients with
drugs." And he knows that the "lab [she] picked...[does] ancestral
profiles in criminal cases, but that's not where the money is. The
money is in using genomics to help with the development of...next
generation superdrugs." His sense of fairness causes him to argue,
"You're using the NFA, using the Knoxville Police Department, using
me, using everyone for a political gain." And "I don't see what
good your At Risk initiative is going to do if we solve the case."
But Lamont glibly retorts, "At the very least, we'll get a DNA
profile, say the case was opened as a result. That in itself is
newsworthy and compassionate, and we'll never admit to failure,
just continue to keep the case open. Eventually everybody will
forget about [it]." Win counters with some sarcasm: "And by then
maybe you'll be governor."
Readers expect Cornwell to give them a story they can sink their
teeth into. In AT RISK she has created a nefarious cast of players
whose crimes range from insider stock trades to personal betrayals.
They lie, they cheat, they manipulate, and they are so narcissistic
and selfish that Win sometimes wonders why he is still working with
them. Then, at the center of the story, the rules change. A totally
unexpected, horrifying and shocking event forces the ensemble to
rethink their priorities and place in the world. The tone of the
narrative becomes dark after the evil deed occurs.
As the narrative races to its close Cornwell takes another risk
many writers shy away from: her characters remain as nasty or as
pleasant as they were from the beginning to the end of the tale.
This device works well, and AT RISK is an entertaining read that
has enough red herrings and solid clues to completely satisfy
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on December 22, 2010