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Book Review: Trace, by Patricia Cornwell

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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.

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  • http://oakhaus.blogspot.com Bill Sherman

    My own take on Cornwell is that she started out strong – but with each new novel, the balance between plot and character has gotten more skewed, and her endings have gotten weaker and less involving. I still read the books, but it’s getting harder and harder to generate much enthusiasm for ’em. . .

  • Tony Dalmyn

    I agree. I read her first several books and dropped her a couple of books before she claimed to have solved the identity of Jack the Ripper. As her reputation grew she became less accountable to her audience, and her stories became less connected to the real world. Her characters became become less connected with law enforcement and it wasn’t credible. Scarpetta is an obsessed, paranoid and grandiose woman who manages to duck a lot of legitimate criticism by saying that people don’t listen to her because she is a woman. In her stories she is always right but gets shunned and fired and stalked by monsters and bad men. In real life she would be fired but she wouldn’t be stalked – people would avoid her like the plague.

  • http://www.planethuff.com/steve/ Steve

    Tony, I think you said it more succinctly than me – I was having a hard time putting it into concise terms, what it is that has bothered me more and more with each novel.

    When you said, “As her reputation grew she became less accountable to her audience, and her stories became less connected to the real world. Her characters became become less connected with law enforcement and it wasn’t credible. Scarpetta is an obsessed, paranoid and grandiose woman who manages to duck a lot of legitimate criticism by saying that people don’t listen to her because she is a woman.” I think you hit the nail squarely on the head.

    It makes me wonder if as certain writers gain more and more success they begin to receive less and less objective editing or even just feedback – it strikes me after reading your comment that Cornwell is not unlike Ann Rice in this respect. With each successive novel it has become more suspiciously about Ms. Rice and less about the characters she so vividly created with “Interview” and “Vampire LeStat.” I can think of passages in later books like “Tale of the Body Thief” where suddenly Lestat waxes political, touches on subjects like choice, (abortion, of course), that seem almost bizarrely discursive considering the content of the story. I know all fiction is in some way about the writer – but isn’t there a line they should want to stay behind, to keep their creations in front and themselves in the background?

    There’s no doubt both writers have earned their success; but I agree with you that Cornwell, like Rice, has truly lost touch with what attracted readers in the first place. I’d bet that many of us who still buy the novels are doing so in hopes of a return to what grabbed us first – good solid storytelling, suspense, terror, you name it.

    If you ask me where Patricia Cornwell ‘lost it’ I’d say it was with the Jack the Ripper tome. I’ve read scads of Ripper literature, and it was by far the most unreadable, tangential, scantily supported set of theories about the crimes I’ve encountered. It was literally the first time I ever just put down a true-crime book about an unsolved mystery midway through and said, “This is ridiculous.”

  • Katey

    I’ve missed something! After reading Trace, and finding that Benton Wesley is very much alive, I’m wondering “what happened”? I can’t remember the book I read before that one, but Scarpetta thought he had been killed. Can anyone fill in the blanks? In which book was he “resurrected?”

  • John Oliver

    I agree with your opinion that Ms. Cornwell’s novels have degraded over time. I just struggled through “the last precinct”. It felt more like a directive from the N.O.W. than a work of fiction. I always thought of Ms.Cornwell as one of the most brilliant and exciting authors of our time. Sadly she seems to be using her novels now to spout the typical anti-male tripe which can be found for free on any street corner. Come on Ms. Cornwell, you may be a lesbian, but please put that great Davidson education to use for a better purpose.
    John Oliver

  • w.williams

    I have read them all and up until “Isle of Dogs”, I enjoyed the stories. “Isle Of Dogs” was fantasy/fiction. A fish that could talk and think? I was not going to read another Cornwell book. However, The Jack the Ripper idea enticed me, but it too was long, repetetive, and boring. “Blowfly” and “Trace” had many holes and inconsistancies. In “Blowfly” I thought Jean-Babtiste was blind? How could he attack and murder two guards and then escape? More fantasy?

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Really good job with this review, Steve. I’ve seen Cornwell’s stuff at the supermarket a million times, but never took the time to check it out. Now I know to check in with the early works.

  • Becky

    I must disagree with you all!!! I started reading Cornwell kind of in the middle of the Scarpetta series (Unnatural Exposure) then went back to the beginning. I have read them all now and sorry guys but I’ve liked them more and more since Black Notice. In Blowfly when Marino walks up to meet Benton my heart was literally thumping like I was watching it happen!! I loved Blowfly and can’t wait to read Trace!! I hope Cornwell brings Chadonne in again.

    Oh yeah, he could see in Blowfly. He had them all fooled.

  • Nick Jones

    I read the first novel and wasn’t impressed. Scarpetta just wasn’t a compelling character for me. I started reading the Jack the Ripper book (from the library, because I didn’t have high hopes), and I saw where she was going with it. Like Steve above, I’ve read a number of books on JtR, and I agree with his take on Cornwell’s book. It seems to me that she picked a suspect that she had a personal distaste for, probably because of his rather obnoxious mysogyny, and ‘fixed’ the facts to fit the theory (sound familiar?). It’s like the book that “proved” that Hitler was gay: all supposition, inuendo, and leaps of logic.

  • http://homepage.mac.com/donfrancisco864/iblog/index.html alpha

    I have enjoyed Dr. Scarpetta and her creator, Patricia Cornwell but I missed quite a few. Then I read Blowfish and was disappointed. I might have enjoyed it more knowing Benton had died (or not). So Katie, Blowfish brought Benton back.
    Sadly, the writer, even a fine one like Patricia Cornwell; writes stock characters (who, though serial and not real, we happen to like, not like, but relate to) but they are there over and over and at some point the exceitement is lost.
    My weakness is that Steve Huff convinced me to read it anyway. It may not be perfect but they are, after all, old friends to catch up on.

  • Joyce

    Trace was a great disappointment after Blow Fly. Cornwell is just not real anymore. Too many toys, too many fast cars, no reality. The relationship with Benton is non-existent. It’s like Cornwell became a very rich author and forgot how to tell a story. She’s more concerned with how people look, wear and drive than anything else. She needs to go back to a 9 to 5 job and get real. I ain’t wasting my hard earned money again.

  • Jennifer

    Although I was happy to see Benton Wesley alive and well in BLOWFLY, I couldn’t see how it was possible that Marino & Lucy both knew that his death was faked; I have since reread all of Cornwell’s novels…and can see nothing that leads me to believe they knew.

    The only major complaint I had about Blowfly other than that is that I can’t seem to understand why Cornwell switched to 3rd person. The thing I enjoyed most was the first person narrator; I could experience Scarpetta’s feelings firsthand…now that Cornwell has switched to 3rd person (and has continued this in Trace), I feel less connected to the character. If I am not satisfied with the story in this one (which I unfortunately forsee happening), I won’t read any of Cornwell’s books…and that is sad, because she was one of my favorite authors.

  • hank

    I am amazed that these books continue to sell, especially after reading Trace. I got to the end and realized that there were three to four unfinished plot lines and I felt as though someone had taken the last thirty to forty pages from the book. Everthing was wrapped up in a few sentences: Henri left – Edgar Allan was no more – Lucy did something – Benton went for a walk Scarpetta showed up in Colorado – Dr. Marcus did nothing – Marino was angry – “Suz” was left to her games – her Dr. husband was left lying on the floor in his office……..what is this all about? Perhaps, as so many authors of this type of fiction, Ms. Cornwell has gotten too greedy and is “on the hook” with her publishers to crank out the next book in the series – without thought to logic or common sense.

  • http://sgriffin38@comcast.net shawn griffin

    Am I the only one who thought TRACE was just plain bad? I think this the first book that I ever just stopped reading three quarters of the way through. I think PC is getting to be a bit like Grishom, the books get worse and worse. YOu’ve made your fortune Pat, maybe it’s time to retire.

  • Carole

    It is sometime since I read a Patricia Cornwell novel and cannot remember the last one.
    I have just started reading ‘Predator’ which I think is her latest, and have been very interested to read your comments about Benton Wesley still being alive. In fact I came on to this website to find out about the characters, as I was sure I remembered him being killed in an explosion. Obviously I have not read ‘Blowfish’ or would have known that apparently his death was faked. I can’t say that I’m not disappointed at the beginnig of this book.

  • Alison Hocker

    I have been reading this lady’s books all along and she is my absolute FAVORITE author and although she did change her style, my feelings for her as an author have NOT changed. I think all of you are being way too hard on my girl Patricia!!!!The only thing I want to ask her is why she gave Lucy a brain tumor and then wrote about some dude we have never heard of.OK, Patricia, I am a loyal fan and have all your books.In fact,we met at a symposium in Knoxville for your Jack the Ripper book.I am waiting with baited breath to see if Lucy is dying!!

  • Daniel

    Lucy´s death is long overdue, if you ask me. I know that is not really a kind thought, but I have to say that Cornwell´s treatment of Lucy is in many ways a sympton of what is now wrong with one of the greatest book series I ever read.
    Lucy started out amiable enough, but I think it is all a bit too much of everything with her: super-intelligent, super-pretty, FBI agent gone internet millionaire gone crimefighter (bit like Batman, really), zooming around in her own helicopter, homosexual, troubled family, and now on top of all a brain tumor. What next? Will she be the first woman ever to land on Mars? The other main characters have developed similarly,though less blatant. Plus, the change to 3rd person really stinks, especially when I wait for the German editions- it is just not any fun reading.
    It is really a shame, but I think PC books are no good anymore.

  • Rosie Thomspon

    I think patricia cornwell is a fantastic author yet i find it extremely irritating with her incorporating her lesbianism into the books, how she always says about them having ample great breasts and attractive and two female friends cant just be friends she has to make them lesbians!
    I am not against gays i am not honestly bothered but i just do not like the fact of her putting it across in every chapter.

  • Therese

    I used to enjoy these books but over the past few years they have changed, aand not for the better, Lucy must be the must irritating character ever created, and I agree with Rosie about the lesbianism.

  • Sharon

    I am just lost, there seems to be no beginning of where she left off in blow fly and trace. What happened to the the nut that just walked out prison, how did Benton tell her were he’s been,much to confusing for me, I will need to go to mt old authors. It is a shame.
    Thank you …Sharon,I though I wood really enjoy thrm