Postmortem, by Patricia Cornwell

>> Thursday, March 31, 2011

TITLE: Postmortem
AUTHOR: Patricia Cornwell

PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Pocket Star

SETTING: Late 1980s US
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 1st in the Kay Scarpetta series

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.

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.
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.

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.

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.
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?

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!



SuperWendy,  31 March 2011 at 19:47  

Confession time: The reason I stuck with this series for as long as I did had everything to do with Marino. 

rosario001,  1 April 2011 at 06:44  

SuperWendy: Really? To be honest, I did find him interesting, but only because he ended up not being as awful as my first impression. I take it he gets better in the next books?

SuperWendy,  3 April 2011 at 03:56  


Not sure how to answer that question without going on a spoiler-filled rant.  I liked that, especially in the early books, Marino is part bigot-asshole and another part really good cop.  I found it interesting that both those halves could exist in one whole. 

I will say that later on in the series his character took a major slide for me, but that wasn't his fault so much as the author's.  She takes roads in this series that....well....didn't work for me.  Hence, we broke up.  But I gotta tell you, I was more than half-tempted to pick up the latest book because I missed my Marino fix.

rosario001,  3 April 2011 at 10:03  

Ah, gotcha. I do know some series like that. Hmm, so where would you say to stop before it turns into a complete train-wreck?

By the way, I'm thinking of the Gerritsen series now -that one doesn't go bad, right? I remember you posting that you liked the last one, so I take it it's safe to continue? ;)

lm,  3 April 2011 at 21:50  

I was a huge fan when these books first came out.  I lived in Richmond in the early 90's and loved how they captured a little bit of the city.  I also know the now retired FBI agent who is the basis of the Benton Wesley character (that is how I got introduced to the books).  After about book 6 I had to stop.  Kay began to annoy me and the books seemed all the same.  I did like one of the non-Scapetta books Hornet's Nest and its follow up that I cannot remember the title.

I actually lived in the neighborhood where one of the Southside Strangler murders took place (the book is loosely based on the case) years after murder took place, but it was a little creepy to walk by the house.

rosario001,  4 April 2011 at 08:59  

lm: That's interesting -I did get the sense while I was reading that the novel had a very strong sense of place. Obviously, having never been to Richmond I couldn't have told you if it actually did feel real, so it's good to know it does.

So, book 6? That's not too bad. From what you say it sounds like that was before she started to take the series in the questionable directions that Wendy mentions? I think I'll keep reading and see how I feel. Thanks!

SuperWendy,  5 April 2011 at 15:57  

Rosario: LM's opinion on when the series starts to "go south" is the popular consensus  among fans (I've discovered).  I made it through much longer until it really hit the skids for me.  I'd say around book 10 - which is Black Notice.  That was right around the time I stopped buying them, and started reading library copies.  Book 17 (The Scarpetta Factor) was so gawd-awful, that was when I was finally able to cut cord and I have still been able to resist reading the most recent book that just came out a few months back.

The Gerritsen series (IMHO) does have a few bumps in the road, but nothing that she wasn't able to "recover" from.  You're in the area of series right now where I just thought the books were OK (The Bone Garden - which is VERY loosely connected, as it's a historical - and The Mephisto Club).  The Keepsake was a "return to form" for me, and I really liked the last book, Ice Cold as well.

rosario001,  9 April 2011 at 09:07  

Wendy: Thanks! I guess I'll just see how it goes!

And I'll keep in mind what you're saying about the Gerritsens when I read The Mephisto Club, thanks! I had no idea The Bone Garden was even related to the series -it's listed in a separate section in the fantasticfiction website, so I never even thougth of looking.

Sandra,  27 April 2011 at 14:24  

I read a couple of this series, but Cornwall only seems to have two plots:  Either the serial killer Scarpetta is pursuing targets her, or a male authority figure tries to ruin Scarpetta's career because he's jealous of her superior intellect.  I didn't like Scarpetta at all. Plus Cornwall's book 'proving' the idenitity of Jack the Ripper was just plain stupid.

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