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.

Flesh and Blood: A Scarpetta Novel, by Patricia Cornwell *****

fleshandbloodOnce I finally polished off Napoleon, I permitted myself to dive into the treasure trove of lovely brand new books that Santa brought. This little gem was right at the top of my “wanna” list. At this point, while she may be picking up some new readers, Cornwell is largely banking on her substantial fan base. Once more I found myself reflecting on what makes her novels so successful.

Because as she pointed out during an interview awhile back, this is completely unrealistic. Sure, she has carefully followed the procedures and science that govern what a forensic coroner does on the job; yet if she were entirely realistic, it would make for dull reading. A forensic coroner does not visit crime scenes, chase bad guys, partner with cops. She is no more likely than anyone else to be stalked, harassed, or threatened, nor would her family members be. (Although if it helps us here, we can accept that all of these things could happen to just about anybody.) Surely, she would not repeatedly engage in shoot-outs, pack a firearm, or be kidnapped repeatedly.

So what is it that keeps the reader coming back?

For me, it’s all about character development. Not only Kay, but also Marino, Lucy, and to a lesser degree Benton (whom she fleshes out a bit more here) seem almost as real to me as seldom-seen relatives about whom I hear stories second or third-hand. And the fact is, by the time we find ourselves reading #22 in a series, we have bought the premise, and she would have to mess it up pretty badly to shake us loose. Needless to say, that did not happen here!

In turns I read for hours on end, ignoring my family (and my blog); then I would realize how much of the book I had read, and I would parcel it out to myself in chunks to make it last longer. Finally I just had to know how it ended.

We start with six shiny pennies on the stone wall that surrounds Kay and Benton’s Boston home. They are about to leave for a vacation, but of course that won’t happen now. Because there’s something about those pennies. For one thing, though all are dated 1981–the year Lucy was born, and this hooked me even more, since my eldest son was also born that year–they have all been polished in a tumbler of some sort. They’re all lined up exactly evenly on the fence. And wouldn’t you know it, a serial killer appears to be loose, and he is using an unusual sort of copper bullets to do his dirty work.

I won’t ruin the rest for you.

Should you pay full jacket price for this book? I guess that depends on how much money you have, and whether you have read the rest in the series. I can tell you that popular series like this one often create a year-long back-up in the Seattle Library system.

If you haven’t read anything else by Cornwell, then go to the library or used bookstore, if this sounds like something you would like, and start with #1. That’s a cheap, easy way to get your feet wet.

But if you have read the other 21 with the same avid ferocity I have, you should probably just get a copy now. If the nearly thirty bucks it will run you is too rich for your budget right now, wait a bit; the hard cover price will drop dramatically when it goes to paperback, and we know it will.

Great escapist fun!