I read Patricia Cornwell’s latest Kay Scarpetta novel- Flesh and Blood.
It is really sad how the once Number 1 bestselling crime writer and mother of all crime-scene-investigation genre has lost the plot completely as to why her books became such a rage in 90s.
Kay Scarpetta- a chief medical examiner was introduced in late eighties. A 40-year-old divorced woman devoted to her work and justice- the books instantly won all awards and rose to stay at number one throughout the decade.
Scarpetta and Clarice Starling were two main reasons I got hooked onto new American crime fiction.
It was the ( then) unique concept of following the ( usually serial)killer using forensic investigation. Cornwell popularised autopsies, liver mortis, trace evidence, Luma-lite and other investigative terms. We read on with fascination as Dr. Scarpetta ploughed through smallest of fibers and dissected internal organs which uncovered the criminals. ‘The dead don’t lie’ is a term often used in the books. Scarpetta has reverence for the dead. She is tough but sensitive to injustice. She is meticulous and will not let go of any single inconsistency in her investigation. She is technologically suave and it was through these books that blockbuster shows like CSI gained credibility.
While we don’t have means to judge the technology or latest forensic science, Cornwell made it easy enough for us to feel smart by focusing on forensics.
Cornwell’s personal life was no less dramatic. She fell in love with a FBI officer whose husband kidnapped his wife and threatened Cornwell. Cornwell’s coming out as well as making once of the main characters in the series a lesbian was risky for the time. She married a neuroscientist Staci Gruber and they both were famous to ride helicopters and sue the fraudulent companies.
Scarpetta’s slightly stiff but ultimately kind character was central to the plot. As a woman chief in a man’s world, she maintained her clinical focus and never depended on her male colleagues or lovers for protection. She almost always was the most brilliant investigator of the lot. The series had the trappings of gun savvy, slightly right-wing ideology, Cornwell was after all a family friend of the Bush family. But the strong female characters- both heroes and anti-heroes were so unique and appealing, that we forgave them for being ‘one-of-the-boys’. Scarpetta also loves to cook and long scenes of her cooking elaborate Italian meals provided a sensuous relief to the bloody narrative.
And then somewhere she lost the plot. The personal anguish of Scarpetta soon became self-aggrandizing to the point of obnoxiousness. The oft repeated formula of the killer obsessing with her and getting vanquished turned comical as virtually every human being in the books started targeting her. Intricate twists turned into ridiculous conspiracy theories. Scarpetta’s heir-apparent, her brilliant niece Lucy Farinelli turned into a caricature. The helicopter flying, gun-toting, techno-wizard, ex-FBI-Agent Lucy turned absolutely repulsive and needlessly dark. Captain Marino- Scarpetta’s sidekick turned disgustingly annoying. The pop-psychology turned self-conscious. Scarpetta increasingly became paranoid. And the whole series lost its focus on forensic investigation and became a badly written chronicle of arrogant, judgemental, self-important people. The recent books almost read like a parody of noir-ish first-person narratives full of conspiracies and unbelievable criminals rising from their graves once too many.
I read some of the 90s Scarpetta books and while now they seem dated what with their obsession with technology, I think that is what Cornwell did best. And I wish she stops with her angsty pretensions and returns Scarpetta to dissect human bodies once again.