>> Thursday, March 31, 2011
With this novel, bestselling author Patricia Cornwell created one of crime fiction’s most compelling heroines: gutsy medical examiner Kay Scarpetta. Cornwell’s gift for combining cutting edge criminology with nerve-shattering suspense makes this book a true modern classic.I've heard Patricia Cornwell's Scarpetta series (and Postmortem in particular) mentioned so often that I had to read it myself. It's been credited with having either originated or pushed over the tipping point several trends, from having female central investigative characters in quite graphic police procedurals (usually with a serial killer targetting women involved), to the inclusion of very detailed forensic ans scientific elements into mysteries. There are tons of books (not to mention TV series) like that out these days. In fact, as I write this review I'm in the middle of Karen Rose's new one, a romantic suspense novel starring -you guessed it!- a female medical examiner.
Under cover of night in Richmond, Virginia, a human monster strikes, leaving a gruesome trail of stranglings that has paralyzed the city. Medical examiner Kay Scarpetta suspects the worst: a deliberate campaign by a brilliant serial killer whose signature offers precious few clues. With an unerring eye, she calls on the latest advances in forensic research to unmask the madman. But this investigation will test Kay like no other, because it’s being sabotaged from within—and someone wants her dead.
The plot doesn't sound particularly revolutionary these days: a serial killer is stalking the city of Richmond, in Virginia, raping, torturing and strangling young women. Dr. Kay Scarpetta is the city's medical examiner, and is determined to do her utmost to help the police catch the killer. To do this, Kay will not only have to pull some huge feats of forensic investigation, but also deal with chauvinistic police and politicians who seem determined to put obstacles in their way.
At about the time I was reading this a couple of months ago, Jane from Dear Author posted an article on the issues authors face when older books are republished, and how some are editing them to update things like the tech references. I posted a comment about how I hated the idea of authors doing this, and how I actually like to have the dated elements there, as they give you a sense of place. I read older books as historicals, in a way.
Postmortem illustrates this perfectly. To read this, you have to place yourself firmly in the late 80s (copyright is 1990, but it would have been written earlier). The most obvious reason you have to do so is because of the technology. For instance, at one point someone comments on this newfangled technique, DNA analysis, and how difficult it would be to get a jury to understand it and accept it as evidence. There's also a big plot point resting on how Scarpetta's computer database's security works which is mindblowing these days. And then there's Scarpetta's 10-year-old niece who's a computer genius and can do all sorts of stuff Kay can't even dream about - to me, this was was very reminiscent of that film that must have come out at about the same time as the book, featuring teenagers hacking into the Pentagon and almost starting a nuclear war with the USSR.
So the tech is an issue, but much more importantly, you need to place yourself in the late 80s to be able to read some of the attitudes in this book without flinching. Everyone smokes, and they do so everywhere. Scarpetta rings someone who she knows is black and is shocked and convinced she got a wrong number when this person doesn't "talk black". Then there's a gay character who's treated with an open disdain which, fortunately, just wouldn't be acceptable today. Kay even thinks:
I suppose if I'd wondered about his proclivities when he interviewed for the job several months ago I might have been less enthusiastic about hiring him. It was something I didn't like to admit.I'm not saying, btw, that Cornwell herself is homophobic -in fact, going by an interview I heard on the radio recently, she's either gay or bisexual herself. She's simply reflecting the attitudes of the time. So how do you edit stuff like this in order to update a book without having to rewrite the whole thing? And why would a reader even want the author to do this, when it would simply get rid of the entire sense of place of the story?
But it was all too easy to stereotype because I saw the worst example of every sort in this place. There were the transvestites with their falsies and padded hips, and the gays who flew into jealous rages and murdered their lovers, and the chicken hawks who cruised parks and video arcades and got carved up by homophobic rednecks. There were the prisoners with their obscene tattoos and histories of sodomizing anything on two legs inside the cell blocks, and there were the profligate purveyors in bathhouses and bars who didn't care who else got AIDS.
Anyway, after that tangent, back to the book itself. So, how did it work as a mystery? Well, I guess I probably would have thought it absolutely fantastic if I'd read it when it came out and I'd never read anything like it before, but reading it today, it was just pretty solid but not spectacular. I liked that the police and Kay are very competent and that it's good old-fashioned investigative work (aided by Kay's breakthroughs in the lab) that gets them the man. A couple of other issues, though, I wondered about. It was a bit weird, for instance, that the medical examiner would be so involved in the investigative area. Also, I found it disappointing that Cornwell doesn't seem to be that interested in who the killer is and why he's doing this. It's all about what he does, and the way he's caught is by looking at who would have the chance to do this, rather than who would be the kind of person who would.
Weaved into the mystery, there's quite a lot about Kay and her relationships with the people around her. She's very much a woman in a man's world, and even though this was written at a point where in theory there shouldn't have been a problem with this, she does have to struggle with people's unspoken assumptions and judgements. It's not easy, and I appreciated how Cornwell showed us this. Kay is also taking care of her niece, and her relationship with the girl and with her mother (Kay's sister) is an interesting one (even though the girl reads a bit unrealistic -too precocious in some ways, too naive in others).
The one I found most fascinating, however, was Detective Marino, who's the policeman investigating the murders. He seems like the worst kind of cop at the beginning, an old-time macho slob, who makes homophobic comments and is probably a bit dumb. For quite a long time I was convinced that the big conflict in the book was going to be that he would completely mishandle the investigation because he'd just refuse to look at actual evidence and simply go with his prejudices, and Kay would have to step in and do the investigating for him. It wasn't like that at all. Marino is actually a really, really good detective, and most of the crap that comes out of his mouth is just intended to get a rise out of Kay. I don't know what's really going on between them, but I'm definitely going to be reading the next few books to find out!
MY GRADE: A B+.