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These days, thanks to TV, forensics is practically a
household word, and the crime scene, autopsy and post mortem have
become fixtures of any cop drama or detective story. But before
“CSI” there was Kay Scarpetta, Patricia
Cornwell’s chief medical examiner: brilliant, courageous,
complicated and literally up to her elbows in blood. Born in 1988
with a novel called POSTMORTEM, this scientist heroine was a
pioneer in what was then largely a man’s field (maybe women
were presumed to be too squeamish?); she aroused my feminist
instincts and piqued my interest in a rather ghoulish line of work.
I was fascinated by the way Scarpetta gets an individual who has
been violently silenced to “speak” through his or her
corpse --- almost as if she were receiving messages from beyond the
grave. The books satisfied my lust for justice as well as my taste
for grisly detail, and the 16th in the series, SCARPETTA, is no

Scarpetta’s intimate “family” is all here: her
longtime love, FBI forensic psychologist Benton Wesley; her
homicide-detective sidekick, Pete Marino; and her computer-genius
niece, Lucy Farinelli. Since the last book Scarpetta and Benton
have married and moved to Massachusetts, but they also work as
consultants to the New York City Police Department and Medical
Examiner’s Office. The book starts with Scarpetta, in
mid-autopsy, being summoned to Manhattan to examine a suspect in
(what else?) a sadistic, sexually tinged murder. (For new readers,
Scarpetta’s specialty is deranged serial killers. Of

Cornwell, as always, serves up some intriguing twists. She seems
implicitly to be striking a blow for minority rights when both the
first victim and the main suspect, Oscar Bane, turn out to be
“little people” --- about four feet tall, with
standard-size heads and upper bodies but truncated arms and legs
(Oscar tells Scarpetta that people treat him like “a circus
freak”). SCARPETTA also mines the emerging power of
cyberspace and the peril of stolen identities. An online gossip
column, Gotham Gotcha, has been printing scurrilous and
vicious stories about Scarpetta, and nobody knows who’s
behind them. Enter Lucy, who now has her own lucrative forensic
computer firm --- and her own plane! --- and who teams up (in more
ways than one) with the attractive local prosecutor. And finally
there is Marino. This tough, clever, self-destructive man, as fans
will remember, always had the hots for Scarpetta, and in BOOK OF
THE DEAD, the novel before this one, he got drunk (and desperate)
enough to assault her. Marino is now working for the NYPD, and of
course he happens to be involved in the same case Scarpetta is
investigating. Their paths cross. I will say no more.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Cornwell has entirely solved
the problem --- chronic when you write a long-running series --- of
making a book work for both faithful readers and new ones.
It’s one thing to address an audience already familiar with
Scarpetta’s closest associates --- who have
“known” Lucy, as it were, since she was 10 years old;
who have followed the ups and downs of Scarpetta’s romance
with Benton (he was married when they met) and her peregrinations
from Virginia to Florida to South Carolina; who had a grudging
respect and affection for Marino and were shocked by what he did
(I’ve been reading Cornwell since the early ’90s, and I
sure was). It’s a different story if a reader is encountering
them for the first time.

Do you reintroduce everyone early in the book? Do you focus on
the narrative at hand and tuck in explanations and details later,
where you can? Cornwell seems to have decided on the latter
strategy. Initially, SCARPETTA consists mostly of long, talky,
action-free chapters that set up the case but leave the reader (at
least this one) a wee bit bored and confused. In a mystery
there’s a fine balance between too much information and too
little, and in the first part of this book, the author
doesn’t always give us enough to go on.

But if you persist, as admirers surely will, the novel becomes
an absorbing read that delivers a tension-filled plot, a gritty
sense of the urban landscape, and most of all, another phase in the
complex emotional evolution of the core characters. Interviewed by
her publisher, Cornwell has said that these days her principal
concern is psychological nuance --- “I think as I get older,
I’m more interested in why than how or even who” ---
and it shows. Her protagonists are no cardboard heroes;
they’re troubled and vulnerable as well as brave, smart and
humane. We care what happens to them. We’re curious about the
next turn their lives will take. Even after two decades, I
don’t think we’ve seen the last of Scarpetta.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 23, 2011

by Patricia Cornwell

  • Publication Date: December 2, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Putnam Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0399155163
  • ISBN-13: 9780399155161