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Book Review: Scarpetta by Patricia Cornwell

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Patricia Cornwell’s 2008 novel Scarpetta is a wonderful mystery/thriller, the first of Cornwell’s novels I actually finished. I’m a mystery writer — so, I admit, I have different standards than a general reader. I always thought Cornwell’s popularity was deserved, it was just that she hadn’t written anything that interested me and my peculiar tastes. (I love books by people you’ve never heard of, like B. M. Gill.)

Book Blurb: Early one morning, Patricia Cornwell’s medical examiner protagonist, Kay Scarpetta, enters Bellevue Hospital’s criminal psychiatric ward to examine a suspected serial killer — not surprising, except that she’s there as his physician, not as a police investigator. By midnight, Scarpetta knows the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Unfortunately, she can’t do a thing about it.

Why is she “handcuffed”? Alone with Scarpetta, the suspect, a “little person” with a Ph.D. in forensic pathology, professes his innocence, but he also cleverly confesses an unusual love affair with the killer’s most recent victim. Having been tricked into a privileged relationship with him. Scarpetta can’t repeat anything to investigators, not even her suspicion that the man is innocent.

Sidebar: There’s plenty of titillating forensics in the novel that particularly appealed to this mystery maven. No one should be disappointed in it, especially not Cornwell’s fans. One very clever forensic bit involves the way a detective counterfeits fingerprints at a crime scene in order to cast suspicion on an innocent man. It’s actually something I’ve thought must be possible but couldn’t figure out.

The final chapter of Scarpetta led me to expect this to be the last in the series. Since 2008, though, Cornwell has published two more novels about the medical examiner and her computer-genius niece: The Scarpetta Factor [2009]  and Port Mortuary [2010]. I’m eager to check them out, too.

Sidebar: I don’t believe the Lucy character is truly a technical genius and would suggest that Cornwell find a real computer geek to help her with the technical details. Specifically, I found jarring a gratuitous reference to “neural nets” and repeated references to PDAs when Blackberry’s or iPads were what she meant. (I volunteer!)

How Did I Get Hooked On Scarpetta?

A few days ago I found a hardback copy of Scarpetta in the remainder bin of a grocery store for less than the price of a paperback. I decided to buy it only because I had read a Cornwell interview when the novel was first released in which she claimed that she was tired of writing trash (my word) and wanted to write something important.

Scarpetta is important, at least in the way Cornwell intended it to be, an important expression of her understanding of human relationships. Unfortunately, it appears that Cornwell’s publisher didn’t understand the book or know how to sell it. The fact that I could buy a remainder copy tells me that the publisher printed far too many hardbacks, flooded the distribution system with them, pushed them into bookstores in massive quantities, and misled Cornwell’s fans into expecting yet another grotesque, bloody forensic thriller.

The book-jacket blurb for Scarpetta proves that her editor didn’t even read the manuscript: The entire book takes place in one 24-hour period (with the exception of the excellent coda chapter at the end); yet the blurb describes a hideous murder that kicks off the one-day investigation, and then says, “In the days that follow, Scarpetta … will undertake a harrowing chase through cyberspace and the all-too-real streets of the city. . . .” (What does that mean, by the way, “all-too-real streets of the city”?) Or maybe her editor read the manuscript but didn’t read the jacket copy before he or she approved it. Clearly, the marketing genius who wrote the blurb didn’t read the manuscript.

In a Guardian interview in 2008, Cornwell said, “My pipe dream is that someone will notice that one of my sentences is really good.” It’s nice to be able to fulfill her dream, because I did think to myself that some of her sentences were really good, especially the sentences in the final chapter, a scene set in New York’s Elaine’s where old friends gather to make peace with themselves and each other. Among the sentences I liked was this: “My parents used to bring me here when I was a kid,” Berger said to Lucy. “This is old New York. You should absorb every detail, because one day there won’t be anything left of an era when everything was better, even if it didn’t seem so at the time.”

I’m older than Berger. I was a teenager, not a kid, in those days. And one of the things that was better then was the American publishing industry. In those days, unknown writers could find a New York publisher for their first novel. Editors would actually edit manuscripts and help writers (old and new) hone their prose. Books were designed by real designers. Book distributors didn’t demand the lion’s share of the price of the book. Bookstores were stuffed with as many book titles as they had room for.

The minor flaw in Scarpetta? It’s a very simple copy-editing error: paragraph breaks inserted into characters’ dialog, which mislead the reader into thinking a different character is speaking. Since it’s one of the basic “writer’s rules” that a paragraph break indicates a new speaker, I can hardly believe this was Cornwell’s error, but, if it was, any competent copyeditor ought to have been able to fix the problem very quickly. So, either the publisher was too cheap to pay for a copyeditor for Cornwell, or the copyeditor who worked on the book was incompetent and ruined whole chapters of dialog. (Most of the book is dialog.)

Nevertheless, Scarpetta is a page-turner, a good airplane book, a fun summer read.

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