Dammit, Patricia Cornwell, I used to like reading your novels.
I am honestly not sure what changed; my taste in writing style-wise or her writing. I think it’s both.
Trace is another Kay Scarpetta novel. When the first Scarpetta novel, Postmortem, was written in 1990, Dr. Scarpetta was Chief Medical Examiner for the city of Richmond, Virginia. Her partner in so many investigations, Pete Marino, was a Detective with the Richmond PD and her niece Lucy Farinelli, who was more like her daughter, was a schoolkid.
Over the course of the Kay Scarpetta novels between Postmortem and Trace, Scarpetta has been fired from the job and moved to South Florida, where she works as a freelance consultant. Lucy Farinelli has grown from chubby schoolgirl to FBI Agent, then DEA, and now runs a private investigative service called The Last Precinct, where Pete Marino is now working for her.
I will give Patricia Cornwell credit; she has allowed these characters to grow organically, and their trajectories over the longer arc of the series of novels have made sense, and also contained logical surprises. Nobody has gone completely psycho and ended up actually being the villain or anything crazy like that. However Lucy has become a somewhat morally challenged character who, while still doing the right thing in a sometimes Old-Testament way, still skirts laws domestic and international while doing The Last Precinct’s work. Marino is one of the most interesting characters, a man of greater depth and sensitivity than one would have expected on reading Postmortem, when he seemed like a hotheaded, perhaps ‘cowboy’ kind of cop. (As an aside, while reading Trace it occurred to me more than once that if these novels ever made it to the big or small screen Michael Chiklis of The Shield would not be a bad choice for Marino at all.)
Kay Scarpetta is the most consistent character – she is the spine of the body of each story. She is a great creation in the history of crime fiction, there is no doubt in my mind – incisive, brilliant, yet vulnerable to inner demons, not nearly as superhuman as she seems to other characters in the novels.
And truly, Patricia Cornwell knows how to make you turn the page and just keep reading. The prose style is immediate, clear, the descriptions often elegantly, precisely rendered, as are most of her characterizations.
That said, I was annoyed by Trace. I felt, as I finished, a sense of “that’s it?” I did not review it here, but I felt exactly the same way upon reading the Scarpetta novel preceding this one, Blowfly.
What Cornwell does that puzzles me and leaves me as a reader unsatisfied is introduce and explore a character, their quirks, their internal landscapes, then more or less leave you hanging. It’s almost as if I now know too much about them.
For instance, in Trace Chapter 24 is entirely devoted to showing us that Dr. Scarpetta’s replacement as Chief Medical Examiner is a troubled man. Perhaps not psycho, not dangerous, but troubled – by anxieties and phobias. There is a definite sense that we are being brought inside this character’s head for a reason. However, unless I missed something completely, this never pans out.
The villain of Trace, overweight, red-haired Edgar Allan Pogue, is a good one as crime fiction villains go – bizarre, and towards the end, rather pitiful. While there is a feeling throughout the novel that something larger than Edgar’s psychotic stalking of Lucy Farinelli is afoot, there is never any demonstrable payoff.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that the author seems to write each book with a much larger narrative in mind. Yet, I find it impossible to believe sometimes that all the characters who are introduced, re-introduced, explored, then ignored in the denouement – Dr. Marcus, the new CME, for example, or Scarpetta’s former Assistant ME, Dr. Fielding – can one day return to make some sense out of their presence, or the issues developed as we read about them.
Essentially, my feeling after reading both Blowfly and Trace was that the novels were not complete. There were too many loose threads for me, too many questions unanswered.
If I have any other issue with Cornwell’s writing perhaps it’s her lack of humor. I don’t always expect crime novels to contain leavening moments, but there were some flashes of it in the early Scarpetta books that often brought a nice pause to the story at hand, a little breathing room. In more recent years the tone of each story has grown darker, and in a way more paranoiac. The world Kay Scarpetta inhabits is a deeply depressing one – even in triumph, even when the ‘bad guy’ or ‘gal’ is caught and put away, or done away with, we can’t quite feel like the balance between good and evil is righted, even if only for a moment.
I am perhaps guilty of having biases about crime fiction, suspense and mystery novels, and I suspect anyone who would disagree with my review of this book might find my outlook simplistic. Perhaps that is the case.
I began by acknowledging that one of Patricia Cornwell’s feats with this group of characters is the way she’s let them grow and change, but remain recognizable – however I suppose it’s fair to sum up this review by saying that my own growth and changes in preferences and aesthetics where crime writing is concerned may have let me grow away from characters and a fictional world that I was once strongly drawn to follow. C’est la vie.
If you want a tightly paced narrative and have that now-popular fascination with forensics, crime scene investigation, then you will still enjoy this novel. If you’ve been following Dr. Scarpetta since Postmortem, I am not so certain you will. I know after this novel I’ve decided to part ways with the good Doctor.