Book Review: 'Scarpetta,' by Patricia Cornwell

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By Maureen Corrigan,
the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air" who teaches a course in detective fiction at Georgetown University.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

SCARPETTA

By Patricia Cornwell

Putnam. 500 pp. $27.95

Autopsy report on "Scarpetta," by Patricia Cornwell.

Condition on arrival: D.O.A.

Description of corpus: Rigor mortis set in with this suspense series somewhere around entry No. 12, "Blow Fly." In an attempt to resuscitate the series (and to compete with all those other medical examiners popping up on TV cop shows), the author resorted to extreme measures: Murder methods became more baroque; psycho-killers grew more sadistic; stalwart characters inexplicably surrendered to darker impulses. Meanwhile, the series heroine, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, retreated into the shadows, hemmed in by her moral rectitude and increasingly glum personality.

Recommendation for corpus: Dispatch "Scarpetta" to the Rue Morgue for discreet disposal of remains.

Fans of Patricia Cornwell's Scarpetta series will doubtless bristle at my irreverence, but their loyalties might waver when they learn that the weary plot of this latest novel features the following: the requisite psycho-killer, who yearns to add Scarpetta to the running tally of salaciously slaughtered victims; a pair of dwarfs, or "little people," who share a zest for frequent showers, depilatory treatments and kinky sex; and -- the ultimate horror! -- a passel of dead puppies. Most likely, however, Cornwell's fans won't give a hoot about what I (or any other reviewer) say about this silly novel. Cornwell long ago ascended into the ranks of The Untouchables: Like Robert B. Parker, Dick Francis and Clive Cussler -- to name a few other mystery and suspense writers whose tattered tents are pitched on that literary Mount Olympus -- she can write no book so bad that it won't instantly appear on the bestseller list.

And you know a book is bad when, instead of losing yourself in its world, you start arguing with its premises. For instance: Why would Scarpetta drop everything (in this instance, her trusty Stryker saw covered with brain tissue) and catch the shuttle from Boston to New York on a blizzardy New Year's Day to examine, at his insistence, a murder suspect sitting manacled in the psych ward at Bellevue? We're meant to think that because the suspect's murdered girlfriend hero-worshiped Scarpetta (doesn't everyone?), who now has a regular gig on CNN, she's famous enough to attract such celebrity solicitations; but why does she consent? Anyway, since when do murder suspects dictate such requests for medical specialists? Is Scarpetta the only doctor willing to work on the holiday? Ditto for Scarpetta's computer-whiz niece, Lucy; Scarpetta's new husband, forensic psychologist Benton Wesley; and her former Keystone Kops sidekick, Pete Marino, all of whom assemble in New York City to crack the case. In all of New York -- nay, the whole Eastern Seaboard -- is there no one else of competence available to combat crime?

The slaying they're gathering to investigate is that of Terri Bridges, a little person who's found in her Manhattan apartment, savagely assaulted and made to witness her own demise in a gilt-edged mirror. Oscar Bane, Terri's boyfriend, is temporarily residing at Bellevue, under suspicion in the murder. (His body is bruised, as though he'd been in a struggle.) As Scarpetta and her team dig deeper, however, it becomes evident that Terri's death has all the marks of the work of -- are you ready for this? -- a serial killer!!!

Serial killers are as ho-hum as dryer lint in the Scarpetta universe. This one, however, doesn't even try to hide his/her/its nutso impulses under a mask of cordiality. (Hint: If you can't identify the serial killer du jour within the first few chapters of this book, you're probably also stumped by those Where's Waldo? picture puzzle books.) Subplots involve Marino's hesitant reconciliation with Scarpetta after a drunken incident months before, when he forced his lustful attentions on her; the marriage troubles between Scarpetta and Benton; and Scarpetta's online stalking in the columns of a gossip rag called Gotham Gotcha! None of these story lines is very compelling because Cornwell's writing in this novel is unusually flat. For instance, here's a passage in which Benton reflects on Marino's sexual molestation of Scarpetta:

"When [Marino] forced himself on her, he wasn't showing contempt or hate or trying to humiliate. Marino was taking what he wanted when she wouldn't give it, because it was the only way he could kill an unrequited love he could no longer survive. His betrayal of her was actually one of the most honest things he'd ever done."

A little of this clinical commentary goes a long way, but "Scarpetta" is long on analysis and short on drama. When Patricia Cornwell's signature series began, its plots were thrilling but restrained; its main character was a complex and engaging career woman, streaked with melancholy. As the tired title of this latest entry suggests, however, the series might be ready to be rolled off the dissecting table and into the freezer drawer.


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