Autopsy: A Scarpetta Novel
By Patricia Cornwell
(William Morrow, 398 pages, $28.99)
After an absence of five years, during which time Patricia Cornwell suggested she might not return to the character, she’s out now with the 25th episode of Dr. Kay Scarpetta, who after some time away from the post is once again the Chief Medical Examiner of the Commonwealth of Virginia. This is good news for the many fans who’ve loved this series since it began in 1990 with Post–Mortem.
For those familiar with the Scarpetta series and Cornwell’s other stand-alone novels and nonfiction there’s no trick in determining why Cornwell’s books have sold more than a hundred million copies in more than a hundred countries. Her stories feature taut, complex, and well-wrought plots full of tension, suspense, unexpected twists, and a mood of danger and foreboding, all centered around an admirable central character. Some of the danger is directed at Scarpetta herself, who rarely enjoys a relaxed moment in all of the 25 stories. When reviewing her 2000 entry into the series, The Last Precinct, for the late, great Tampa Tribune, my headline read: “Check under the bed before reading Patricia Cornwell’s latest late at night.”
In addition to being entertaining, Cornwell’s stories are intelligently done. Her work, along with that of others such as P.D. James, Tony Hillerman, Dick Francis, Bob Parker, et al., demonstrates why I’ve been insisting for years that the very best of mystery/detective/crime fiction (the categories merge into each other) are our modern novels of manners. They can tell us a lot about, with apologies to Anthony Trollope, the way we live now. Much more than current literary fiction, which has entered an arid phase it shows little sign of shaking off. (Anticipating objections, defense stipulates there is a lot of dreck in the mystery section of your local book store. But the best repays reading time.)
As I began reading Autopsy I first thought perhaps Cornwell was showing a little ring rust. This story, unlike her previous Scarpetta sagas, develops slowly at first. But it soon morphs into a typical all-engines-ahead-full pursuit of evil villains, with Scarpetta aided by her able assistant and guardian angel, former police captain Pete Moreno, as well as her volatile niece Lucy and her husband Benton Wesley, now a forensic psychologist with the U.S. Secret Service.
The case begins when a woman’s body has been found, throat cut, displayed next to a railroad track near Old Town Alexandria, where Scarpetta and family now live. The deceased woman soon becomes as big a mystery as who killed her. There’s evidence that she may have been involved in espionage, nicking sensitive information from Thor Laboratories, the high tech firm she worked for, and passing it on for cash to folks who ought not to have it. This foul play is soon linked to the unexplained deaths of two scientists in a top secret laboratory in outer space.
In a less than convincing sequence of the novel, forensic expert Scarpetta is summoned to the White House situation room to sort out what happened to the dearly departed scientists. President Biden and VP Harris have cameos in this challenge to the willing suspension of disbelief. Cornwell gives these two more of a pulse, an attention span, and an ability to track complicated situations than they possess in real life. But not to worry, while there is plenty of personal politics in Cornwell’s novels, she does not inject the partisan or cultural kind, which, alas, too many fiction writers feel compelled to do. Call this sequence an aberration.
This somewhat off-key note behind us, Kay and Pete get down to the business of pursuing and dealing with villains, both on and off the government payroll. While Cornwell eschews partisan politics on the page, she does deal insightfully with the corruption and empire-building found in all large bureaucracies. The values and work ethic of Scarpetta and associates are those that conservative TASreaders will find simpatico.
In addition to the relentlessly tense stories, Cornwell gives us an up close and accurate look at how medical examiners and forensics experts work as well as accurate police procedure. Accurate thanks to the exhaustive research Cornwell conducts before sitting down to write. And because Cornwell worked in the Virginia Medical Examiner’s office in Richmond for six years after working as a police reporter for the Charlotte Observer. (As for competence, hard work, and dogged determination, Cornwell is much like her creation.)
The kind of evil Cornwell deals with in her stories may not be exactly in tune with the current season of peace and good will. But if you have a fan of the Scarpetta series on your gift list — her book sales suggest many of you do whether you know it or not — he/she would be pleased if Santa were aware of Autopsy, which while perhaps not Cornwell’s best, is a solid entry in a memorable crime series.
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