Postmortem, by Patricia Cornwell

Postmortem, by Patricia Cornwell, book review by Ruth LivingstoneI had forgotten how good Patricia Cornwell is. This is her first Kay Scarpetta novel and one that I read a long time ago. As part of my Birkbeck University course, I recently had to revisit it.

This is crime fiction at its best. Kay Scarpetta is the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond, Virginia, and works with the police to uncover the identity of the serial murderer who is terrorising the city. There is no equivalent role in the UK, but Scarpetta’s responsibilities appear to be a combination of postmortem pathologist and police surgeon.

Told in the first person, we never know more than the narrator. In common with many heroes of detective fiction, Kay Scarpetta is beset by problems – both personal and professional – and is no friend of officialdom. Unlike many other detective heroes, she is not a maverick but is an obsessional worker who pays attention to detail and is determined to do the right thing. Her vulnerability lies in the fact that she is a woman in a man’s world and her superiors are politicians with uncertain motives.

This book introduces some characters who appear in later Kay Scarpetta novels, including Lucy, Kay’s niece, the FBI agent Benton Wesley and the police detective Pete Marino. Unlike many other crime writers at the time, Cornwell makes Scarpetta’s tangled personal life a central element in the plot and puts her heroine in directly, mortal danger. This formula is repeated in subsequent novels, not always with the same success.

The forensic details play an important part in the uncovering of the crime. The graphic descriptions of postmortem examinations and procedures make this a different genre to classic detective novels and this is certainly not ‘cosy’ detective fiction. Neither is it really a ‘whodunit’. The murderer’s identity is…. well, I won’t spoil the ending, but there is no neat unveiling.

What I liked about the book.

  1. The compelling story line, you want to keep reading.
  2. Kay Scarpetta seems a real person with a complex life.
  3. It features a strong woman – a professional woman in a position of responsibility.
  4. The element of suspense and sense of personal danger.

What I didn’t like.

  1. Scarpetta seems too vulnerable and too emotional at times.
  2. Her personal dilemmas can come close to overshadowing the main plotline.

Published in 1990, some of the forensic details of the book are dated. DNA technology is now common place and detection has been revolutionised as a result. The descriptions of computer technology are equally dated and it is fascinating to reflect on how much has changed in the past 30 years.

One of the joys of reading a series is the anticipation of being able to continue a relationship with the author and their characters. This first novel was so good, I looked forward eagerly to reading each successive installment.

Sadly, I lost faith with the writer during the course of the Scarpetta series. While I liked the continuation of the personal story line that ran through each successive novel, I became less and less convinced with the dramatic devices used to engineer the climax of each story. According to the Cornwell ‘formula’, at some point Scarpetta had to face some extremely dangerous threat to her own life. To engender the crisis, Scarpetta – a supposedly intelligent and thoughtful professional – was required to indulge in some bizarre activity and make some ridiculously stupid decisions. As the novels progressed, I felt the character and plots became increasingly unconvincing.

Having said that, however, this is a great book and a thrilling read.

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