TRACE

By Patricia Cornwell

Putnam. 435 pp. $26.95

In decades past, when I first encountered the work of certain writers -- Michael Connelly's "The Poet," Elmore Leonard's "52 Pickup," Lawrence Sanders's "The Seduction of Peter S." -- I knew I had to go back and read everything they had written because they were that good. "Trace" is the first of Patricia Cornwell's immensely popular Kay Scarpetta novels I've read and my reaction was quite the opposite. Cornwell is certainly not without talent -- a fierce intelligence underlies her fiction -- but you couldn't pay me to read another of her novels. The main problem has to do with her characterization -- one might say her deification -- of her heroine, the forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta, and we will get to that, but first let's examine her plot.

Scarpetta, five years after she was unjustly fired as Virginia's chief medical examiner, has been called back to Richmond to investigate the unexplained death of a 13-year-old girl. She is rudely treated by the misfit who has succeeded her but she concludes, with the help of her loyal sidekick, Pete Marino, that the girl was murdered. Meanwhile, down in Florida, a young woman who is living with Scarpetta's niece, Lucy, has been beaten almost to death in Lucy's $9 million mansion. The victim is hustled off to Aspen to be cared for by Benton Wesley, Scarpetta's semi-estranged boyfriend, even as Lucy, who runs a fabulously successful private detective agency, tries to find out who is stalking her. We readers soon learn the secret that takes Scarpetta and Lucy longer to uncover -- that the culprit in both cases is a nutcase named Edgar Allan Pogue who once worked for Scarpetta. Pogue talks a lot to his mother, whose ashes he carries around in a cookie tin.

Pogue, although homicidal, is not much more repulsive than various other characters. Scarpetta's bete noire is her successor, Dr. Joel Marcus, "a small thin man with a small thin face and a small thin stripe of dirty gray hair on the back of his small head, as if nature has been trifling with him." We are endlessly told of this awful fellow's jealous loathing of Scarpetta. We even learn of his bizarre phobia -- he is afraid to go out of his house on the days that the garbage men come ("big dark men in their big dark clothes"). We learn, when Scarpetta returns to her old office, that one of her former colleagues has fallen apart: "Fielding has lost most of his hair and his once attractive face is puffy and blotchy, his eyes runny. He sniffs a lot." Two minor participants in a staff meeting are described as "a big, horsey woman with a horsey face" and "an overweight, homely young woman" whose face glows "like a halogen heater on high."

Cornwell seems to bring people onstage only to scorn them. A hotel employee, briefly glimpsed, is a "pimply-faced young man," a neighbor is "rich and pampered and addicted to Botox," a waitress "clicks over in her little stilt-high pointed shoes" and "up close, she is old." All this ugliness only underscores Scarpetta's magnificence. One admiring female sees her thus: "She is an attractive woman in a powerful way, not a big woman but strong-looking in a midnight-blue pantsuit and midnight-blue blouse that sharpen her handsome features and set off her short blond hair. Her hands are strong but graceful and she wears no rings." Her sidekick Marino muses, "If only all women cared as little as she does about things that don't matter. If only all women cared as much as she does about things that do matter." When she touches him, "He would know that hand anywhere, that strong, sure hand." We are not surprised when Marino reveals that he has long lusted for Scarpetta.

Scarpetta has a lover, of course, although he's mostly offstage. Her consort, Benton Wesley, is a fine specimen, with his "hard, tan, handsome face," and he is "rich, very rich" and becomingly modest ("He has never quite understood why Kay loves him intensely and unconditionally"), but in this novel "Scarpetta and Benton are not in a good place." Oh, Lord, please let Scarpetta and Benton be in a good place again -- there's so much bad in the world, surely we deserve that!

The thing I decided halfway through this novel was that Cornwell doesn't conceive of Scarpetta as a heroine on the scale, of, say, Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone or Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski, but more like a figure in Greek mythology, a Minerva, a goddess. I was therefore pleasantly surprised, a bit later, to find Edgar Allan Pogue, the nutcase who wants to kill Scarpetta, comparing her to "the god who sits on top of Mount Olympus, the biggest god of all gods. . . ." If Edgar Allan Pogue and I agree on something, it must be true.

One of the problems with a series is that the hero always wins. To counter that, authors often give their protagonists foibles that make them seem vulnerable. Grafton's Millhone and Paretsky's Warshawski are recognizably human, and Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch and Ian Rankin's John Rebus struggle with problems (booze, cigarettes, bad romances, angst) that would sink most mortals. But sometimes writers go the other way and fall into the trap of liking their characters too much: Hemingway did that, as his ego overcame his talent in his later novels; a critic once noted that J.D. Salinger loved his Glass family more than God loved them; and Raymond Chandler was overly fond of his alter ego, Philip Marlowe. I don't know if Cornwell's fans enjoy the Scarpetta novels because of or despite her being a superhero, a figure who asks to be worshiped the way young girls used to worship Wonder Woman. If you aren't put off by Cornwell's forensic pathologist as a modern Minerva, you certainly could find "Trace," and presumably her other books, to be enjoyable reads. But once was enough for me.