Tuesday, 4 January 2011

A Corpse In Every Port

Port Mortuary 2010.
By Patricia Cornwell.
Little Brown Jug.
ISBN: 9781408702352

I got a little bit worried about Patricia Cornwell for a while. Every year for the last fifteen years or so I have had a Christmas ritual of getting given the latest novels by Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs and reading them over my Christmas holiday one after another. I usually whizz through them quite quickly but this year I’m a little behind on my reading because the Christmas season seems to have been a little more “packed” for me than usual.

Cornwell’s Scarpetta books have mostly been brilliant since she started writing them but I remember a period of a good few years which ended, maybe three or four years ago, when I noticed she’d kind of lost her edge with the characters and... to my amateur thinking... got very sloppy with her writing. Honestly, there were a couple of books in another series she was writing as well as in her long running Scarpetta series where I thought she’d really lost it. Things seemed to be unexplained and then the audience were referred back to them even though we hadn’t known anything about them. And in general... it just seemed like she was preoccupied with other things in her life and I was, frankly, shocked that the publishers let one or two of them out in the state they were in.

That’s an awful criticism to level at anyone and I don’t do it lightly. It didn’t coincide with her shift from telling the Scarpetta stories in first person narrative style to third person... it was a year or two after this. And I kept telling myself... oh, look. Even Ian Fleming had a couple of rubbish ones in his Bond series. The Man With The Golden Gun anybody?

I’m glad to say, though, that the books soon picked up quality again and the last few years have been really tight, gripping reads from the woman who is basically the Queen of the modern day crime writers (Kathy Reichs definitely runs her a close second though). I’m quite sure in years to come, Cornwell’s investigative forensic scientist (or whatever the current nomenclature is... don’t shout at me, I’m not very technically minded) Dr. Kay Scarpetta will be as well known as some of the other great literary “detectives” of our time. Certainly she wouldn’t look out of place in the company of Sherlock Holmes, Joseph Rouletabille, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot or Philip Marlow.

Her books and characters are quite intensely focussed and written with a razor-like sharpness which rivals the quick efficiency of one of Dr. Scarpetta’s scalpels as she slices into a dead body to look for clues. It’s the kind of writing that hooks you in and won’t let you rest until you get to the, often quite unexpected, solution at the books end.

Port Mortuary is no exception to her brilliant Scarpetta adventures and matches the intensity of her previous work and, if anything, kicks it up another notch or two. It’s also a return to a slightly different style of writing the characters in that, for the first time in years, the inimitable Cornwell has returned to writing the story in first person from Scarpetta’s own viewpoint. Now this is interesting and I guess there are pros and cons to working the characters in this way.

Cornwells books have always been a bit edgy in that the mortality of the regular characters, especially in the early days, has always been up for grabs. You never knew who was going to wind up dead next and about the only character you could be sure was probably not going to die was that of the fictional author, Dr. Scarpetta herself. All that changed, though, when Cornwell switched to writing them in third person and my natural assumption was that Cornwell had maybe finally got fed up with the character she had created and decided to switch to a writing viewpoint with which she could kill the character off unexpectedly if need be. And so the books, for the most part, became an even more intense read because you were always fearful, as you were reading through these things, that this could be the last book in the series and that Scarpetta could pop her clogs any minute.

Switching the books back to her old “first person” perspective allows for greater mystery (you don’t know what any peripheral good or evil characters are thinking because you are no longer in their heads) and allows for more surprise in the actions of other characters but at the same time gives you the message that Scarpetta is narrating all this... so it’s not likely she’s going to die anytime soon.

Port Mortuary is quite a focussed bit of writing in that for nearly all of the near 500 pages, all the action of the novel takes place pretty much over a 24 hour period (although obviously events pertaining to the current investigation are filled in by the relevant characters keeping Scarpetta up to speed). It also tells the story of a cover-up operation which Scarpetta colluded with in the early days of her career and which has been haunting her since. I’m not going to tell you what that is though... spoilers!

There was a lot less of my favourite Cornwell character Lucy Farinelli in it than I would have liked but she’s certainly represented in the plot as it also includes references to increasingly alarming nano-technology... and in her forward at the start of the novel, Cornwell is quick to point out that she is not writing science fiction here but science fact. So... something new for me to worry about again. I do wish Cornwell would write a series of books specifically about Lucy Farinelli at some point... but I guess she would have already done that if she’d have thought that was a commercially viable option.

All in all... Port Mortuary is a really great book giving you another giant dose of the near super-human (in intellect) Doctor Kay Scarpetta and fans of this writer and of this character in particular certainly won’t need me to tell them to pick this one up. A solid, good piece of writing from one of the great modern writers. Go get it!


  1. I've had to help edit tired books by tired authors (wondering wtf caused the book to be accepted by the publisher) and I admire the ones who can kill off the character, find a conclusion that makes sense, or well, hire a writer to continue their legacy (it's a good gig if you can get it). Thanks for this thoughtful review--haven't heard of the series...

  2. Ooh... you should maybe check them out. A very strong, female lead.