Autopsy, by Patricia Cornwell*****

Autopsy is number 25 in the Kay Scarpetta series, the first forensic thrillers ever to see print. This series began in 1990, and I have read every single one, but this is the first time I’ve scored a review copy. My thanks go to William Morrow and Net Galley.

When the series began, Scarpetta was the chief medical examiner in Virginia. When last we saw her, she was working in Massachusetts, but now she’s come full circle, brought back to her old position in order to root out corruption and restore the office to the integrity it held when last Scarpetta was in charge. She didn’t expect it to be easy, and it surely isn’t.

There are long running characters that have been so well developed over the years that I almost feel as if I would know them on the street. Her husband, Benton Wesley, holds a sensitive position within the FBI, and the necessary secrecy and sudden need to pack a bag and go somewhere has led to marital tension over the course of the series, but not so much this time. Kay’s niece, Lucy, is more like a daughter; she has been estranged from her mother at times, a high-strung, self-absorbed woman that looks out for number one every minute of every day. The mother—Dorothy—is now married to Pete Marino, with whom Scarpetta has worked closely for the length of the series, and they live nearby.

At this juncture, new or inconstant readers may wonder if there’s any point to jumping into a book this far into the series. I read it with that question in mind, and whereas you won’t have the background and depth of context that faithful fans possess, you can understand everything that happens here; Cornwell doesn’t burden the reader with assumed knowledge.  And if you are a new reader, likely as not, you’ll find yourself headed to the library or bookstore to pick up others from this series. It’s that addictive.

The only background information that might make a difference is that from the outset, Kay’s whole family (except Dorothy, of course) fears for her well-being. A murder occurs in the area, and the victim is a neighbor of Pete and Dorothy’s. Immediately, there’s this sense of urgency, and it’s more than one would ordinarily expect. A neighbor has been killed; the circumstances are weird, and we don’t know whodunit; everyone is edgy about personal security, and again—especially regarding Kay’s safety. So let me help you out, if you’re new: over several of the most recent episodes, someone has attempted to kill Kay, nearly succeeding more than once, and though the occasional thug has been caught, the schemer behind the attempts is still out there somewhere. The narrative makes no specific references to any of this, which I appreciate. It’s obnoxious when a book costs as much as new books do these days, for the author to insert what amount to advertisements to buy her other books. But for those not in the know: If the beginning seems a little overwrought, that’s why.

Add to this that the old guard is still entrenched in Kay’s workplace, with people whispering behind her back, and her secretary clearly plotting against her. She’s just arrived, but she is on the back foot, trying to find out what’s going on and who can be trusted, and trying to establish her own authority without making enemies unnecessarily. As I read, I find myself urging her to assert herself. Because to me, Scarpetta isn’t a fictional character at all. I believe in this character, and I believe in Benton, Lucy, and Marino, too. I’ve known them longer than a lot of people I see in real life, after all.

Those of us that read a lot of mysteries, thrillers, and so forth become accustomed to timeworn plot devices. I have a little list of things I hate to find in books of this genre, and Cornwell avoids them all. There is no alcoholic protagonist that just wants a drink, a drink, a drink. There’s no kidnapping of the protagonist and stuffing her in the trunk (or backseat, or whatever,) nor does this happen to any of her loved ones. Scarpetta is not being framed for a murder she didn’t commit, nor is anyone she loves.

Instead, we get an autopsy in outer space, supervised remotely by Scarpetta. How cool is that?

One other aspect of this book, and this series, that I love, is that there is just enough interesting information included about forensic investigation without the story turning into some tedious science lecture, as I have found in books scribed by Cornwall’s imitators.

The pacing is swift, the dialogue crackles, and a new character, Officer Fruge, is introduced. Hers is the last word in the book, and for some reason, it made me laugh out loud, a first for this series.

Welcome home, Scarpetta.

Murder in Dragon City, by Qin Ming**

murderindragonIs there a killer on the loose in Dragon City, one that’s trailing body parts everywhere he goes?  I received my DRC in exchange for this honest review, thanks to Net Galley and Amazon Crossing.  This collection of stories l is written by a Chinese medical examiner, translated to English by Alex Woodend. I’m always up for something new, and so I took my galley and curled up. Unfortunately, this one just never gelled for me. I tried setting it aside, reading other things and coming back to it, hoping that with fresh eyes I would like it more than I had before; finally I had to face the fact that I couldn’t write a happy review and also be honest.

It happens.

Undoubtedly the strongest aspect of this story in my view is, as one might expect, the forensic detail and physical knowledge the author commands. But that can cut two ways, if you’ll pardon the expression. Some of us just love gore, and the more fleshy fingers or toes that land in sizzling oil, the more we eat it up.

On the other hand, some of us are completely grossed out by frequent, grisly findings, and this author put his thumb on my “ick” button and never took it off.

One other thing I like and that’s consistent is that Chinese cops that find corpses or find themselves in strange, scary situations don’t feel compelled to feign indifference. There’s no noir to be found here, just honest cops that yelp when they are scared and that dive when they hear a loud noise near a crime scene. The candor is refreshing and sometimes funny.

Obviously, each story has a different spin to it, but the tone overall is much the same.

I confess that the last time I studied Chinese government and culture was in the post-Mao period, before the largest Stalinist types of government fell apart; I don’t know what life is like for women these days in China. But the author never seems comfortable portraying women as people that are female. Women are featured and discussed as political bigwigs, servants, and technicians, but we never see them acting in concert with men or each other. There’s a clump of men, and then…there’s this woman. Sometimes. The woman is always featured as “other”. The male cops gather and discuss whether any woman would be ruthless enough to commit the crime in question, but by this point I was so green around the gills that I didn’t want to find out whodunit or why. I just wanted to be done, which I am.