At the beginning of Patricia Cornwell's latest thriller, BLACK NOTICE, she resurrects beloved character Benton Wesley --- Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta's lover --- with a haunting letter from beyond the grave. Benton was brutally murdered in Cornwell's last novel, and Kay, her police buddy Capt. Pete Marino, and her niece Lucy are still trying to come to terms with his death. They don't need this just-delivered letter, written by Benton a year ago, to stir up their emotions. Benton is never far from their thoughts. In fact, his absence has become an overwhelming presence in their lives.
So, when Christmas roles around, Kay finds herself even more depressed and turns to her work for a diversion. When a decomposed body arrives in Richmond Terminal in a container on a cargo ship from Belgium, Kay goes into high gear. Her initial autopsy finds no cause of death or ID, so the corpse remains a "black notice," or unidentified body. Kay has little to go on besides a strange tattoo on the body and a message scrawled on the container: "Bon voyage, le loup-garou" (Le loup garou is French for the werewolf. Mon dieu!)
As if this bizarre case is not enough to handle, Kay must confront a new Police chief, Diane Bray, who demotes her pal Marino and wants her fired. She must also deal with a new female detective who's particularly good at messing up a crime scene. Then there's the situation with Lucy, an agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in Miami, who's working on a dangerous drug smuggling case, and --- still angry about Benton's death --- is ripe for a fight and maybe a little trigger-happy as well. And, let's not forget that Kay's lab assistant, Chuck, may be stealing drugs and selling them on the black market and that someone is breaking into Kay's e-mail and masquerading as the good doc during Internet chats. At this point, poor Kay probably wouldn't be surprised if Santa left coal in her stocking as well.
The container man case eventually takes Kay and Marino to France where they have a clandestine meeting with Interpol. It seems a
loup-garou serial killer has also been at work in Paris. In The City of Lights, Kay is faced with the prospect of breaking the law herself in order to solve this case before the killer strikes again. She's also faced with the prospect of breaking with the past, as a new love interest comes into her life. And, in Paris, Marino will deal with his own feelings about Benton's death when clues arise to suggest that Benton may still be alive.
Cornwell is one of the best when it comes to writing about autopsy procedures and forensics, and she's in top form here. She explores fascinating territory when Dr. Kay must grasp at even the most remote forensic straw to piece this frightening case together. BLACK NOTICE is a fast-paced thriller, filled with nail-biting suspense and several interesting surprises. Taking Kay and Marino to Paris is a nice new touch, although some Scarpetta fans may find Kay's Paris romance happening a little too fast and may also wish that Marino's Benton-may-still-be-alive theory was taken a little further. But, fans will nonetheless be delighted with Cornwell's latest and will no doubt anxiously await her next one.
Reviewed by Joan M. Higgins on August 1, 2000