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Book Review

Hardened and bitter, Scarpetta is back in action

Email|Print| Text size + By Clea Simon
November 12, 2007

Book of the Dead
By Patricia Cornwell
Putnam, 416 pp., $26.95

Anger can be useful to a crime novelist. Without a good head of steam, there's no push toward resolution - no reason to resolve the crime. But in "Book of the Dead," Patricia Cornwell's 15th Dr. Kay Scarpetta novel, the anger goes too far. While this latest novel retains Cornwell's trademark intelligence and detail - particularly when it comes to Scarpetta's forensic practice - it is also steeped in a bitterness that makes the central crimes nearly too horrible to bear and turns old familiar characters unrecognizable.

The book opens with a particularly chilling scene as a terrified young woman is described in gruesome detail by the man holding her hostage. When we hear, soon after, that the victim - a teenage tennis star - has been found dead and mutilated, it is almost a relief.

But by then, we're in Scarpetta's life, and it is a mess. Although Scarpetta seems to be drawing closer to former FBI investigator Benton Wesley, her long-time lover, their relationship remains problematic. Wesley is now a forensic psychologist in Massachusetts, at McLean Hospital, while Scarpetta has relocated from Virginia to a private forensics practice in Charleston, S.C. It's not simply physical distance that has strained their interactions. Jealousy and misunderstandings contribute to a situation that has Benton using unprintable language even as he proposes marriage. Their impending - and unlikely - union results in complications for both of them, particularly as Scarpetta's longtime sidekick, the gruff former homicide detective Pete Marino, starts acting on his frustration and jealousy. In addition, self-serving television shrink Dr. Marilyn Self, Scarpetta's nemesis from 2005's "Predator," is back, this time hiding out at McLean as she tries to clear herself of involvement with the man who may be responsible for the death of the tennis star and, perhaps, others.

There are actual crimes here for the dysfunctional team to solve. In addition to the young athlete's case, Scarpetta also has the corpse of a boy who seems to have been both starved and beaten before his death. As always, the details and specificity with which Cornwell writes about these victims drives home the horror of violent death. In her glamour-less version of "CSI," Scarpetta has both a keen sense of justice and a soft heart: She can perform autopsies with sober focus but cannot stand that birds frequently fly into her windows, killing themselves. However, in this outing, the author seems to have hardened her sensibilities. In addition to the turmoil that she throws in Wesley's and Scarpetta's courtship, Cornwell seems determined to make all her major characters suffer. Both Scarpetta's secretary, Rose, and her tough-as-nails computer-genius niece, Lucy, face major health challenges. But it is Marino who fares worst. Previously a hard-drinking, somewhat self-destructive type, in this book he's a walking disaster. Driven by jealous rage to break the rules of Scarpetta's lab, where he works, he escalates to a dramatic and dangerous peak. His attack, when it comes, may be the best scene in the book. Told in the present tense, it builds with ordinary details: "He kisses her and grabs her, and she turns her head away, tries to push his hands away, struggles and tells him no." It's a shocking scene, very real, but an extreme turn for a formerly reliable colleague.

That flat third-person delivery works well at describing a sexual assault in progress, but it doesn't help in less dramatic scenes. Even when Cornwell started this series in 1990's "Postmortem," her characters had an edge, and Scarpetta has long flaunted her abrasive attitude. But the recent switch from first- to third-person, the increasing coolness of the narration, and increasing distance between the characters makes this a hard book to relate to, as if the author was growing angry at her audience, as well.

Clea Simon is a freelance writer and the author of "Cattery Row."

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