Review: Cruel and Unusual by Patricia Cornwell

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“… he thanked God for a mercy I saw no evidence of and claimed promises too late for God to keep.”

Here we go. The fourth book in the Kay Scarpetta series, and I feel like Patricia Cornwell is really hitting her stride. This is everything I want from my crime fiction: a super compelling hook fleshed out in a serpentine plot, its now firmly-established characters enmeshed in a wider conspiracy.  

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Review: All That Remains by Patricia Cornwell

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In Patricia Cornwell’s third Kay Scarpetta mystery, Richmond’s chief medical examiner hunts a serial killer who has been operating more than two years.

The press have dubbed the murders “The Couple Killings.” Not the most inventive moniker — but an apt one. When “All That Remains” opens, we learn there have been four sets of victims so far; eight young people — couples who have disappeared without a trace, only to be eventually discovered within a fifty-mile radius of Williamsburg. The FBI and the Richmond Police Department have few clues to work with. Scarpetta herself has so far been unable to determine their cause of death, left with only bones and rotted clothing scattered with leaves to work with. And now there’s a ninth and tenth victim — one of whom is the daughter of Pat Harvey, the high-profile female national drug policy director and vice-presidential hopeful.

Several characters who’ve featured in the series’ two preceding entries reappear; Detective Pete Merino, obviously; FBI Special Agent Benton Wesley; and newspaper reporter Abby Turnbull, whose sister was herself murdered by a serial killer in “Postmortem,” and is still dealing with the psychological fallout. Scarpetta’s investigation unspools over weeks and months, but there is nothing glacial about its pace, and in fact the extended time-frame makes for an intriguing change of rhythm compared to most novels I’ve read in the genre.

On this expansive canvas, Cornwell is able to complicate relationships between characters, and demonstrate the painstaking processes involved in forensic science. Readers of this kind of fiction (myself included) are so accustomed to forensic answers being offered with an exaggerated immediacy; but in reality, it’s slow, meticulous work. And as always, there’s nobody better than Cornwell at eloquently and compulsively describing these methodologies and techniques.

In my review of “Body of Evidence” I mentioned my disappointment at that novel’s culmination; too similar to the ending of Cornwell’s debut. No such resemblance here. Oh, sure — it mightn’t be as intense; but it’s a worthy conclusion, splendidly binding the threads of all that came before it. Well-drawn characters and a well-tuned pace make this a winner.

ISBN: 9780751544480
ISBN-10: 0751544485
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 416
Published: 1st November 2010
Publisher: Little Brown

Review: Body Of Evidence by Patricia Cornwell

A writers’ toolbox is vast, which makes the ending of Patricia Cornwell’s “Body of Evidence” all the more vexing, as it essentially replicates the climax of her debut. I won’t go into details obviously — this is a safe, spoiler-free zone — but I was galled by the culmination of this otherwise superb mystery, mystified at how Cornwell didn’t recognise she was aping her own work. It’s the only false note in her second Kay Scarpetta novel. 

When successful historical romance writer Beryl Madison is barbarously slashed to death in her Richmond home after returning home from Key West, Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta joins the police investigation led by Detective Pete Marino. A couple factors of the case immediately pique Scarpetta: the fact Madison evidently welcomed her killer into her home; the subsequential murder of her mentor, reclusive writer Cary Harper; and then suicide of his sister. Not to mention the looming shadow of an unscrupulous lawyer who is determined to obliterate Beryl’s final manuscript from existence; and the re-emergence of Kay’s former beau.

Putting aside its ending, Cornwell’s plotting is seamless, and the burgeoning claustrophobia of Scarpetta’s terror as Beryl’s killer closes in is utterly heart-pounding. The mystery unravels through forensic discoveries, exhaustive analysis of paper records, and various interviews with people of interest. The investigation builds steadily, not through melodramatic discoveries or explosive confrontations, but through dogged fact finding. Its crescendo is effective, sure; it works, functionally, for the story. But we just saw this play out; for me, less than a month ago, when I embarked on this mission to re-read the Scarpetta novels. It was a sour note to end on in a novel I otherwise wholeheartedly recommend.

Review: Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell

While the methodology of Kay Scrapetta’s investigative practices detailed within have aged, the seamless mechanics of Patricia Cornwell’s storytelling have not. In fact, I enjoyed “Postmortem” as a historical document as much as I did it as a mystery. Policing, like every other facet of our lives, has had to adopt and adapt to modern technologies and shifting attitudes. It’s interesting to see what has changed, and in some cases, how much has remained ostensibly the same.

This is the first Kay Scrapetta novel, and its plot is fairly conventional. A serial killer is operating in the city of Richmond, in Virginia — and Scarpetta, the Chief Medical Examiner, is working with the police to discern their identity. She is hindered by chauvinistic male colleagues and cops; and outrightly obstructed by someone close to the investigation leaking information to a dogged reporter; and persons unknown hacking into her computer and corrupting files. 

Scarpetta is tough and uncompromising, forging her own path in a man’s world. Her softer underbelly is exposed through her niece Lucy, who is visiting for a couple of weeks. The plot blazes along nicely, although Cornwell has a tendency to slow things down to explain a particular forensic practice — DNA was in its infancy here — or somewhat laughably (from a contemporary context), how a modem works. 

It’s been more than a decade since I read my last Cornwell, and I’m excited to rediscover her books. While some of the story beats are familiar, there’s something spellbinding about its execution… never mind the Scrapetta factor! 

ISBN: 9780751544398
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 432
Published: 1st October 2010
Publisher: Little Brown