As Patricia Cornwell’s “Red Mist” begins, medical examiner Kay Scarpetta prays that the “roaring and chugging and backfiring” cargo van she’s rented makes it through the Georgia Lowcountry, with its convoluted creeks, moss-webbed trees and kudzu-strangled underbrush. As she does, the reader also enters convoluted terrain — that of a thriller that’s diffuse and serpentine.
Scarpetta has left her home base of Cambridge, Mass., where she’s just been appointed head of the Cambridge Forensic Center, to interview Kathleen Lawler, an inmate at the Georgia Prison for Women. She hopes Lawler will offer insight into the murder six months ago of Jack Fielding, Scarpetta’s former deputy chief.
Years before, Lawler, working as a therapist at a camp for troubled youth, had seduced Fielding, who was then just 12 years old. The liaison eventually produced a child, Dawn Kincaid. Eight months before Scarpetta’s arrival in Georgia, Kincaid went on a rampage, killing four victims, including Fielding. Kincaid was apprehended when she tried to kill Scarpetta.
Scarpetta’s interview with Lawler is one of the book’s better scenes. This grandiose sociopath sets off genuine chills: “The roulette wheel spins and stops and your number comes up and that’s what you are no matter how hard you try or even if you don’t try at all,” Lawler says. “You are what you are, you are what you’re not, and other events and other people just enhance the angel or devil, the winner or loser in you.”
But the encounter leaves Scarpetta with more questions than answers. Why is Lawler worried about one Lola Daggette, and what, if any, relevance does this death-row prisoner, convicted of murdering the family of Savannah doctor Clarence Jordan, have to the case? Likewise, what bearing on matters has Barrie Lou Rivers, the “Deli Devil,” who murdered customers by poisoning their tuna-fish sandwiches — and who died just before her scheduled execution as she choked on, yes, a tuna-fish sandwich?
“Red Mist” is so heavy with exposition that the first half of the book is largely taken up with back story, stalling momentum and making the reader impatient to find out how all or any of this detail links to Scarpetta’s mission.
Eventually, Scarpetta moves forward with the investigation, and her analysis of its clues — blood spatters, undigested food, glue on postage stamps — will fascinate the legion of fans who have followed her all the way up to this, her 19th case.
But as the medical examiner digs through a mountain of clues, the reader must dig through a mountain of words. What Scarpetta could say in three words she says in 30. What she could sum up in three paragraphs she stretches to three pages. Points are repeatedly repeated until the reader wants to exclaim, “Get on with it!” In one scene, for example, the medical examiner says, “I wasn’t here. I hadn’t stayed. I’d left earlier.” We got it, Kay.
Besides its garrulous narrator, the book also suffers from stylistic problems. The dialogue mostly follows a one-phrase-fits-all approach that leaves all the characters sounding alike. And rather than weave evocative detail into the ongoing action to create a fully realized moment, Cornwell has Scarpetta fire off at the onset of a scene rat-a-tat descriptions of place or character that read like stage directions.
When Scarpetta finally pulls together the strands of this case, she reaches a surprising conclusion that will give readers pause about their own safety. But even then, the myriad characters, events and details in “Red Mist” fail to make a larger thematic point. The book is thick in pages — nearly 500 — but thin in meaning. It’s likely to leave the reader more exhausted than edified.
Bartell is an arts and travel writer in Manhattan.
By Patricia Cornwell
Putnam. 498 pp. $27.95