Patricia Cornwell’s first novel in the Kay Scarpetta series appeared almost twenty years ago, and for a good proportion of that time her protagonist’s name has been synonymous with a subgenre of crime fiction. Hi-tech forensic technology and a high profile female protagonist were blended with the grim specifics of pathological science and continuous emotional tension amongst the “good guys”. Entitling the new novel Scarpetta could be read an as an attempt to present it as an epitome of the heroine’s long career in crime, but it feels more like a gathering of loose ends before the characters set off somewhere else. Where they might be going remains unclear, but Scarpetta does give some hints as to how Cornwell’s style might develop if the series continues.
The plot of Scarpetta is multi-stranded and draws in a violent strangling, a suspect psychiatric patient who refuses to discuss his case with anyone but the heroine, a celebrity gossip website and the dissemination of slanderous rumours about Scarpetta by someone in the team. The story of the case, however, doesn’t seem to be the main focus of the book’s concern: though plotted accurately enough, it remains deeply obscure through much of the narrative and hangs on a detail which ensures it can be quickly unravelled and hastily explained near the end of the book, whilst leaving one of the criminals at large to bring it all to a climax with a home invasion sequence. This is thriller-by-numbers for Cornwell, who has been used to plotting both ends against the middle ever since earlier books like Post Mortem and Cruel and Unusual. Her real interest seems to lie elsewhere, in her handling of the characters. After Book of the Dead, the previous novel in the series, violently dismantled the central group of characters, Scarpetta goes a long way towards bringing them back together. In fact this is done rather better than their dispersal: the attempted rape which split them apart is shown working its way through the characters’ consciousness, being avoided, negotiated, redefined and confronted in therapy. In this way it comes to have far more weight than the original scene, and becomes more a condition for the book’s action than a piece of plotting. During Book of the Dead it seemed unlikely that Scarpetta, her FBI agent husband Benton, her covert operative niece Lucy and the ex-cop Pete would all sit down to dinner again, but Cornwell shows us exactly that as the novel ends.
Food and cooking have always been significant in this series as a way of asserting the heroine’s rootedness. It counterbalances her work in the morgue, where she spends so much time pulling apart the organs and processes which make up the human body, and reasserts the body’s physical integrity by showing it working as a system. Cooking also offers a vision of Scarpetta’s Italian heritage to contest the stereotypes of Italian-American manhood which emerge through Peter Marino: the drinking, the violence, the chauvinism. It’s also one of the obvious ways in which Scarpetta’s moral claim to her niece was staked early on in the series, by contrasting the home-made food she provides with the junk food and neglect Lucy gets from her mother. Indeed the character has twice made the generic leap into cookery books, in Food to Die For: Secrets from Kay Scarpetta’s Kitchen and Scarpetta’s Winter Table. Thus bringing the characters together over plates of calamari at the end of Scarpetta is far more than a convenient final scene; it marks a real move towards integrating the group again.
Scarpetta also shows Cornwell’s technique is becoming far more assured when handling multiple viewpoints. Book of the Dead and Predator both saw her stretching her previous use of free indirect discourse, which had tended to be focussed on either the heroine or the killer. At first this tended to chill the emotional tone, perhaps inevitably since it involved applying to her cast at large a method which had been used mainly for disliking people or plotting serial murders – such passages tended to be quite paratactic, and ran the risk of reducing characters to bundles of undifferentiated impulses. In this most recent book, however, there are some cleverly worked moments when Cornwell suddenly slips from narration to indirect discourse and back again, such as Benton’s musings on his history with Kay. Only the sly handling of the word “morals” hints that we’re hearing Benton’s voice at this point, as we catch the double vision of adultery from inside and outside the relationship.
If Cornwell continues to broaden her narrative techniques like this, it might help her avoid one of the real problems with the structure of Scarpetta: all the therapy. Counselling and analysis sessions have always been features of the series, and worked to dramatise the characters’ problems in expressing their feelings to each other, whilst allowing the reader access to those feelings. But the trope has been worked to death, and the new book relies on yet another string of “couch scenes” to reveal the motives for their actions and to enable the plot. As a conceit or a touch of verisimilitude, therapy sessions did a lot for Scarpetta in the past, but they can’t sustain an entire series.
Several other elements of Cornwell’s writing are becoming obviously subject to the law of diminishing returns. The notion of a conspiracy against Scarpetta, driven by her profile as a powerful, successful woman in the media spotlight, is more rationalised and developed here, but it has been used in so many previous works that the idea is no longer gripping, however interesting the execution. As the characters continue to rise higher and higher in their professions, they’re losing the traction which allows narrative tension to develop: Scarpetta is now a celebrity expert witness, Benton an FBI legend, and Lucy has apparently worked her way through every branch of the US covert community to the point where she seems to command her own private army. Secret government laboratories, private Lear-jets and NASA scientists work very well for some authors, but Cornwell has always been hi-tech, not hi-concept. It’s a long way from the Stryker saws and handgun residues of the early novels, and it seems unlike that this kind of narrative inflation can be sustained indefinitely without long-term readers eventually becoming bored.
Scarpetta isn’t as naive a book as the above might have made it sound. There are flashes of wit – the description of the morgue as a “deconstruction site”, for example – and a sense of the book probing its own genre at times. A particularly striking passage involves faked emails, supposedly sent by Scarpetta, which purport to “dish the dirt” on autopsies at which the medical examiners mock the corpses, take souvenirs and generally act callously. In the novel this appears as one strand of yet another conspiracy to bring the heroine down, but it also works as a reflection on the fictional assumptions which underlie the series. As readers, we know that Scarpetta and her team do none of these reprehensible things, but the lurid emails work on exactly the same principle as the novels as a whole: they purport to reveal secret worlds, to tell us what it’s like to mingle with the dead. They demand our trust, since they discuss matters which we will probably never experience – indeed, part of their appeal is the sense that the knowledge they impart cannot be corroborated – and in return they offer the straight dope, the exclusive story. These unpleasant and sensational little texts, appearing in the middle of the novel, demand we recognise them as functionally identical to Scarpetta, and ask why we believe it and not them. As I have said, much of Cornwell’s new novel feels familiar, but there are suggestions here that she is searching around for new methods and new directions. If that’s the case, then the gang are back together and ready to go wherever she wants to send them next – and there are a lot of fans waiting to see how it turns out.
This article first appeared in California Literary Review, March 2009