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.