The title of Patricia Cornwell’s new novel, The Scarpetta Factor, is rather telling, and highlights the direction its author has been moving in for some time. The early Scarpetta novels which made her famous had titles like Postmortem, Body of Evidence, Cruel and Unusual and Cause of Death. Good titles. Possibly a little generic, but that was the point of them: they located the novels firmly in a field which Cornwell did so much to enrich. (Just how much can be demonstrated by picking up one of the unsatisfactory wave of sub-Scarpetta novels which followed her. After Cornwell, an absolute shower.) These days, however, she writes novels like Scarpetta and The Scarpetta Factor. If the latest title sounds like Robert Ludlum on a slow day, it’s a pretty fair reflection of her tendencies at the moment.
The novel is a real pageturner, put together with Cornwell’s accustomed skill and detail. She handles multiple plot-lines deftly, and withholds just the right amount of information from the reader to make the narrative interesting as well as exciting. She’s developed an enjoyable way of beginning novels in the middle of a story, letting her audience watch the characters carry out conversations and actions which they don’t yet understand, but which will be unravelled as the book continues. This must be an even harder trick than it looks, and The Scarpetta Factor is driven by the reader’s need to find out what the heroes know, as well as what the villains have done. To manage this structure, without simply boring the audience in the early pages by talking over their heads, Cornwell has become even surer in her handling of free indirect discourse. She’s been sliding in and out of her characters’ heads more frequently over the last few novels, and in The Scarpetta Factor it feels a lot less lurching. In many ways her style has opened out – the books no longer cover a singe series of crimes, and they explore their stories through a number of viewpoints.
With this broadening, however, comes a diffuseness and a loss of friction. Too many of the crimes in The Scarpetta Factor are simply attempts to “get at” its eponymous heroine. We’re offered yet another lengthy conspiracy by shadowy forces who hate Scarpetta herself, and have mobilised substantial reserves of time and money over more than one continent in order to bring her down. The same kind of motiveless malignity is directed at Benton and Lucy, Scarpetta’s husband and niece. Lucy, whose career in the past has taken in most of the named, and several un-named, forces of the US state, is now revealed to be staggeringly rich as well. A swindle which deprived her of hundreds of millions of dollars is treated in the novel as a personal slight, not as the likely cause of financial hardship. As Cornwell moves further into this rather hum-drum international-conspiracy-thriller territory, her writing pays the price. She certainly didn’t use to churn out sentences like Dodie checked into the hospital and was breathing down Benton’s neck, and the toying and torturing continued while laughter rose to the rafters inside the medieval house of Chandonne.
These flights of blandness are balanced by some obvious attempts to anchor the narrative. The book is studded with references to Bernie Madoff and “Ponzi schemes”, and the phrase “in this economy…” appears frequently enough to attract attention. Very few of the characters seem to be actually affected by the situation, though, and it seems more like lip-service than a genuinely felt element in the novel. When Lucy can afford to drop a nine-figure sum from her portfolio without altering her lifestyle, and Scarpetta is being begged to star in her own TV show, the references to hard times feel rather perfunctory. More effective is the food references: as with the last novel, The Scarpetta Factor ends with a sort of secular communion, gathering all the heroes together to eat together and reassert what they share. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Italian cooking is a key element of the Scarpetta series, and it works again here to ground the fictional world.
The Scarpetta Factor is not a bad book: it’s exceptionally well crafted, and shows real flair at several points. The passages in which Scarpetta’s memories are jogged by the smell coming from a parcel are very stylish and thoughtful at the same time. There’s one striking gap, however, which only becomes obvious once the novel has been finished: there’s no room in it for the victims. Kate Summerscale’s superb book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher has an epilogue in which she writes of suddenly realising that, whilst examining every facet of the case and its ramifications, she had nearly forgotten the murdered child at the centre. Scarpetta and her band of heroes loom so large in The Scarpetta Factor that there is little room for anyone else, or for any motive not directed towards them. The victims are slipping out of Cornwell’s writing, and an important tenderness is going with them.
This article originally appeared in California Literary Review, October 2009.