How I fell out of love with Patricia Cornwell

You may not have this impression from reading the pages of this blog, but I love crime fiction (some of you may have worked it out from my header – a pile of Chandler novels that decorated a table at my wedding).  I haven’t written about any crime books so far because its been a while since I read one.  When I do read crime fiction, I’m really not particularly choosy.  I love good old-fashioned, who-dunnit detective stories, classic crime noir, modern thriller and police procedurals.  Agatha Christie featured heavily during my teenage years, in the 90s I obsessed with Ellroy’s LA noir stories and the grit of Pelecanos’ East Coast dramas.  More recently I’ve discovered the classic hardboiled fiction of Chandler and Hammett and, like the rest of us, I have dabbled with the new wave of Swedish crime.

Along the way however and always there in the background over the past 2o years has been the queen of forensic procedurals, Patricia Cornwell.  She has pretty much published a book per year in her Kay Scarpetta series and I’ve bought them all.  For those not familiar with Kay Scarpetta, she is a brilliant medical examiner, her rank and employer changes several times during the series, but one thing remains the same – she is dogged, she wants justice and she wants to do the right thing by the victims of the crimes she is investigating.

In the early days when I was short of cash, I always waited for the paperback version to come out, latterly, as Little Brown very cleverly published the newest installments in November/December each year, a hardback Scarpetta would be a staple Christmas present from my mother-in-law.

The series began in 1990 with Post Mortem.  It is a story of a serial killer who is strangling women, and contains plots, intrigue and sabotage from within the medical examiner’s department.  At the time, this writing was so fresh, there wasn’t anyone writing about forensic examination and crime scene investigation.  It was before its time.  As I read the next few Scarpetta books, I was hooked.  I was sucked into this grisly world of medical terms and mortuary procedures.  I believed in the characters, Scarpetta with her problem background, her all-American rise to success, her weird niece that she feels so defensive of, the grumpy and uber-protective detective friend Marino.  I went with it and continued to believe in the set up for a good 10 years.  By the time Black Notice was published in 1999, I thought Cornwell might be losing the plot a bit.  By the following year when The Last Precinct came out I knew she was losing me as a committed reader.  I stuck with her though for the next 10 years out of loyalty more than anything else, until finally last year I told my mother-in-law not to bother buying the newest Scarpetta, as I had had enough.  The final nail had been hammered into the coffin the previous year with the release of the truly awful Port Mortuary.  I was gutted.

So what went wrong?  Things just became more and more unbelievable, especially regarding the main characters.  Each book became an increasingly spectacular circus of the private shenanigans of Scarpetta and her crowd – the victims have taken a back seat, whereas at the beginning of the series they were central to the plot.  Each killer is obsessed with Scarpetta personally, solving the crimes has become a personal crusade to clear her name or protect her cronies.  Scarpetta’s tone has become more self-righteous as the years have gone on.  Other characters too have had doubtful story lines, colleagues have gone rogue.  When you stop believing in the characters and the story lines, it is time to admit defeat.

To give Cornwell her due she has tried to keep things fresh.  The early books were written in first person narrative from Scarpetta’s point of view.  In 2003 she published Blow Fly and changed to third person narrative.  This was fine for a while; Trace published in 2004 felt like a return to form,  but I was lost by this time.  Port Mortuary the last book I read went back to first person narrative, and it was dreadful, self-indulgent, morose and well…I couldn’t wait for the end.

Undoubtedly, Cornwell knows her stuff when it comes to forensic procedures and has some very knowledgeable advisors.  She includes the most up-to-date scientific practices and technological forensic tests in her books.  Each instalment must require mountains of research and yet she manages to churn out a Scarpetta book nearly every year.  It must be difficult with a series as established as this one to continue to make it feel new, exciting and believable.  I’m sure Cornwell attracts new readers every year, but unfortunately I am no longer among the ranks of Scarpetta obsessives.  In fact, today I did something unimaginable to me only a few years ago.  I decided the 18 Scarpetta books were taking up too much space, so, having offered them on my local Freecycle board, dropped them with a new owner this afternoon.  I hope she will love Scarpetta as I have done and passes the books to another reader when she is finished with them.

Time for me to try something new.

15 thoughts on “How I fell out of love with Patricia Cornwell”

  1. She is trading on past success. I no longer buy patricia cornwell books as the whole scarpetta crew have changed beyond recognition, particularly marino. He always held a special place in scarpetta’s life as a friend yet she now speaks of him as if he is an imbecile. I’ve actually wondered over the pas few years if she was actually using a ghost writer. Books are now about scarpetta and not the crimes/victims.

  2. I could n’t agree more. The early books were so atmospheric and gripping but the writing seems to me to have become more and more superficial. A strong whiff of paranoia united with increasing concentration on Scarpetta herself rather than the mysteries ruined them for me. I really can’t be bothered with the helicopter antics and I also dislike her tendency to write in the present tense. Like you, I have given away all the ones I had kept and stopped reading them. A pity: they really were so good once.

  3. I too got hooked early and have read all of her books but she started losing me quite a few books ago. I suppose I figured it had to get better but it hasn’t. Today I finished Depraved Heart and I’m done. 466 pages in first person that covered less than a 12 hour time frame with no conclusion. Readers are hung out for a story that obviously continues to the next novel. Her books have become excruciatingly slow paced. Rambling details as Scarpetta’s mind jumps all over the place. Her descriptions of homes, furnishings, plants and the weather read like Better Homes and Garden. Did I mention excruciatingly slow pace? Reading Cornwell has alas become work. Give me Michael Connelly, John Sandford, David Baldacci or John Grisham. Although Grisham’s latest “Rogue Lawyer” was not his typical work. However, I heard he was not ready to write but his publisher forced the issue and the result was Rogue Lawyer. An earlier comment made this point about publisher demands. But back to Patricia Cornwell, her books have been going south for a very long time. Sadly, she has to keep writing because she has mismanaged her finances.

  4. I do still read them…low income so library or charity shop! But also I have seen the deterioration…..I do wonder how much pressure is put on authors by publishers as it seems to be a common problem with quite a few authors, just churning them out because they have to…a bit sad. Did you ever read Jamie Lee Burke? I still find him good.

  5. I tend to like the more old-fashioned detective mysteries, rather than the crime thrillers, so I’ve never read anything by Cornwell. Can’t get by without some Sherlock Holmes, of course. Have you ever read the detective stories by Georgette Heyer? With Inspectors Hannasyde and Hemingway?

    But I will take a look around for Cornwell’s earliest Scarpetta book, when I’m at the library next. 🙂

    1. I haven’t read any Georgette Heyer, my sister read a few when she was a teenager. I love a bit of Sherlock myself. Come back here in a week or so as I about to start writing a big piece on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle…(I’ve said it now, so I’ll have to do it!!)

  6. Like yourself, I’m a fan of Chandler and also Hammett. I enjoy reading the Inspector Maigret novels but apart from that I can’t say I’ve read many more crime novels. However, I enjoyed listening to a podcast called Why I Really Like This Book on the English classic crime novels of the 1920s and 30s. It’s an excellent resource for coming across unfamiliar books.

  7. Inclined to agree. I started reading the Scarpetta novels and was impressed by the forensic knowledge and the portraying of same in the early books. Over time the characters became less believable, in particular Lucy who is far too good to be true. The whole shebang has degenerated into self indulgent nonsense. The sooner Cornwell retires Scarpetta and gets back to basics, the better.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I think you may be right. Lucy was the character that became the most unbelievable. Cornwell is a good writer, she just could do with getting back to basics with something new.

  8. I think you’re absolutely right – Cornwell has been losing me for the same reason over the last few years: the growing lack of interest in the victims, the increasingly tortuous plots which involve Scarpetta as the focus of the worlds’ interest and concerns, the difficulty of caring about characters who can take a six figure loss in their stock portfolio as a personal affront rather than a threat to their survival… The last time I sent a Scarpetta review to an editor, he was amazed I was still reading them, given what I’d said about the previous couple! And I don’t think it’s just us: the comments on my pieces are full of readers who say they used to be huge Scarpetta fans, but are finding the books really alienating recently.

  9. I’m giving her one more chance. I’ve struggled through some of the dire books in the middle of the series and I’ve thought the more recent books have seen a bit of a return to form. So one more chance. I am feeling the same about Kathy Reichs and I think the James Patterson I just finished will be the last.
    I do feel, though, that in the case of Reichs and Cornwell I haven’t yet found a writer / series which would fill the gap in my reading. We’ll see.

    1. Thanks for your comment! She has had so many “one more chances” from me that I am now done with Scarpette – let me know if future books are getting better.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Yes I know what you mean – he was quite creepy, but in a way that storyline and others like it were some of the things that have put me off the Scarpetta series.

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