Whatever her faults, you can’t criticise Patricia Cornwell for sticking in a rut. Port Mortuary, her latest novel about the forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta, uses a new narrative device to explore fresh plot territory. But the resulting book is exceptionally difficult to like.
Port Mortuary signals a new departure before the first page, with a rather portentous “Note to My Readers” which warns them that “Whilst this is a work of fiction, it is not science fiction…Some of what you are about to encounter is extremely disturbing. All of it is possible”. The note goes on to list the eight organisations in the book which are “real and fully operational” and specify which three are merely “completely within the realm of possibility”. The story which follows bears out this suggestion that Cornwell is moving further down the path her most recent work has been taking – from detection towards hi-tech, with high concept looming ominously on the far horizon. Since the novel relies so heavily on the hardware element, it would be unfair to reveal the gizmos which zoom and creep amongst its pages, but there are enough uses of the prefix “nano-“ to keep lovers of futuristic-sounding technology happy. Though anyone who doesn’t fancy the idea of giant mechanical ants might want to give this one a miss.
With this influx of military hardware goes the demise of any real detection, an alteration demonstrated by the discovery of a body with strange wounds, almost as if it has been stabbed by a knife which can pump explosive gas into the body. If the reader spends much time puzzling over what kind of attack could have caused such anomalous wounds, they’ve wasted their efforts. Scarpetta googles a few combinations of words and it turns out that one can buy a knife online which pumps explosive gas into the body. Revealing this isn’t a spoiler, since there is nothing to spoil: the interest has shifted from the account of how she arrived at the facts of the crime, to the excitement of those facts themselves. I should add that this shift is not a fault in itself: critics of Victorian fiction have long described writers like Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle as operating on a spectrum between “suspense” and “sensation”. You don’t have to be continually working out what will happen next in order to enjoy the stream of thrilling incidents in The Woman in White – indeed, I’m not sure I know what happened now I’ve read it. And how much of the pleasure of The Hound of the Baskervilles actually comes from ratiocination – isn’t one of Doyle’s best tricks his ability to persuade the audience that they’re enjoying one mode of writing when in fact they’re enjoying the other? So Cornwell’s foray into a more “sensational” (in this sense) style needn’t be a cause for complaint, though it may wrong-foot some of the readers who have been following Scarpetta’s career previously.
However, if the Scarpetta novels are going to move in this direction, towards the fact-based and undeniably gripping model of Frederick Forsyth’s work, they need to get their facts right. Amidst the welter of hi-tech info which the average reader couldn’t – or wouldn’t – check, there is a blunder which most readers won’t even need to. In deepening Scarpetta’s “back-story”, Port Mortuary describes how she worked in South Africa soon after graduating, and is haunted by her complicity in covering up a crime by the apartheid state. Put briefly, a pair of young women, one South African and one American, were killed (presumably by state forces) and their bodies mutilated and arranged to make it appear that they had been tortured to death by an “Afrikaner” gang. Scarpetta suggests that this was to done for the political advantage of the racist authorities and to cast the “Afrikaners” in a bad light. This subplot is based on the apparent assumption that the Afrikaners were black South Africans oppressed under the apartheid system, rather than (as was actually the case) a “white” group whose Nationalist politicians enacted the apartheid laws. This is clearly just a factual mess-up, and there is no sense in which the novel suggests that the racial politics of apartheid South Africa involved the wholesale oppression of white people by other racial groups. But the mistake is pretty severe, and underlines the novel’s reliance on hardware over other values. The ignorance of South Africa’s history wouldn’t be a problem if it hadn’t been latched into Port Mortuary as a way of adding an ethical element to the narrative, and heightening Scarpetta’s moral significance. A book which is going to co-opt South Africa’s troubled past in order to add stature to its protagonist might take the trouble to get the basic facts right.
This change in material goes along with an experiment in form: this is the first Scarpetta novel to be written entirely from a first-person perspective. Cornwell has discreetly juggled various kinds of perspective in the past, moving from more objective third-person to a more intimate free indirect style when she sounds as if she’s narrating from somewhere near her character’s heads, if not quite inside them. In Port Mortuary she goes the full perspectival hog, and we see the world from Scarpetta’s eyes, narrated via her internal monologue. It’s a fairly bleak place from where she’s standing. First-person novels are always tricky to discuss (and indeed to read), since they tend to collapse the multiple perspectives available in other forms of narration: one always seems to be wobbling between accepting the character’s voice as a reliable narration, and hopping out of their head to work out what they might look like to those around them. However, in Cornwell’s case we have an unusual advantage: the previous seventeen novels have already provided us with a feel for the world her character is inhabiting, a sort of “reality check” against which to gauge Scarpetta’s thoughts and feelings. And her perceptions don’t come off well when measured up against that reality. Scarpetta’s internal monologue, when extended for hundreds of pages, comes across as self-pitying, snobbish, contemptuous of other people and verging on paranoia. This may be a rather skilful piece of character work by Cornwell, but it is difficult to enjoy being inside this mind for any length of time. The response to great swathes of Scarpetta’s mental processes as she wades through the depths of human experience is not horror, but irritation.
Cornwell has finished her novels with a meal more than once in the past, with these occasions serving as a kind of secular communion in which her characters are brought together to quietly reassert the values of the series after the horrific events they have been through. Port Mortuary’s end is similar, but the differences are telling. Scarpetta is alone with a dog which she has rescued during the story, and talking to it about the meal she intends to cook for her husband Benton:
“Let’s go for a ride.” I talk to Sock as I find my slippers and a robe. “Let’s see what Secret Agent Wesley is doing. He’s probably in the office on his phone again, what do you bet? I know, he’s always on the phone, and I agree, it’s quite annoying. Maybe he’ll take us shopping, and then I’m going to make a very nice pasta, homemade pappardelle, with a hearty Bolognese sauce, ground veal, red wine and lots of mushrooms and garlic.”
The narrative peters out in a solipsistic and sentimental monologue, as Scarpetta talks aloud – not to another character, but to a creature which can neither understand her nor answer back.
This article first appeared in California Literary Review, December 2010.