by Patricia Cornwell
Warning: Some ‘how the characters have moved on’ spoilers included.
I’m so happy to finally, after a good few years, be able to return to what has been my annual Christmas ritual for some years now... starting the first chapter or so of the latest of Patricia Cornwell’s Dr. Kay Scarpetta hardbacks. Autopsy sees Scarpetta, one of my favourite contemporary characters, returning to her old stomping ground of Virginia, taking over as the chief. However, it’s not an appointment which everybody is happy with and, as she tries to get a handle on what can only be described as ‘adverse interpersonal working conditions’ (yeah, had enough of those in my time), she becomes embroiled in a number incidents which are all connected although, at least from how I understood it, not all connected in the same way.
So Cornwell weaves a tale of a woman found with her head bashed in and her hands removed... a neighbour of her regular character Marino. Marino has both followed Scarpetta and her husband Benton to Virginia and also, it would seem, married Scarpetta’s sister (aka Lucy’s mother). Also added to the mix are a poisoning which Scarpetta has to deal with up close and personal, not to mention what looks like a double murder in space, where Scarpetta has to remotely instruct from a video link as two astronauts try to work a crime scene with her help. And it’s all gripping stuff.
Also like a fair few of her Scarpetta mysteries of recent decades, the time frame in which all the events take place is a small one. Not as small as some of them but certainly this one takes place over no more than a few days, in the December run up to Christmas. Also fitting her usual pattern, the solution to the whole mystery... or in this case, set of mysteries, is left until the last minute. It rarely seems rushed but it’s quite an effective sprint to the finishing line, as it always is. Happily enough, I didn’t arrive at a solution before the main protagonist did (and I don’t think I was armed enough to be able to, in all honesty) but I did get myself believing I would this time due to my concentrating on two specific clues which, while not red herrings, were not going to be all that workable to the reader, I would say (and that’s not always a bad thing if you don’t want to tip off your audience too quickly).
And it’s the usual, intriguing tale told from Scarpetta’s regular first person world view of things but, it has to be said, it’s also quite scary. Not scary because of the various murders and so on which come to light but, scary because I completely trust this author, due to her various life experiences and thorough research, to know what she’s talking about in some of the more, up to the minute stuff. Unlike some creators have been doing, this story is firmly set up in the real world and in real time... so the characters tend to move on with their lives between books. In this one, my favourite supporting character Lucy Farinelli (who Cornwell’s legion of fans have all read about as she grew up in the books) is staying on the same property as the good doctor herself. The reason being that this book is set firmly in a post-outbreak world. The pandemic is still, as it is, thriving and Lucy’s young girlfriend and their small child have both been to London, caught Covid and died between books. I read with worry as Cornwell describes just how truly bad the Coronavirus is in London, with mass burials etc and, as I noticed the information spinning much more ‘on the nose’ than we are getting on our own news over here in the UK... I was reminded once again how badly off we are now in this pandemic. Because if there’s one thing I trust more than the news being reported at the moment, it’s Cornwell’s research into what’s really going on.
So that element is quire scary and, indeed, so is the way Lucy has chosen to deal with the death of her lover. She basically talks to her all the time as an AI version on her computer... one who is almost impossible to tell from the real life model in terms of behaviour, responses, look and resourcefulness. Almost like having the real person, now deceased, standing in the same room as you. I’ve no doubt, as Scarpetta worries about how commonplace it will soon be for this technology to be commercially available that Cornwell probably knows it’s already here and it won’t take all that long to trickle down into the public domain. I’m used to her dealing with cutting edge technology a year or two before we realise it’s already here. Stuff which seems like pure science fiction when she first published it has turned out to be hard science ‘already with us’ on more than one occasion. So, yeah, this is an interesting and perhaps worrying thing to be reading about but... I do appreciate the heads up, for sure.
Interestingly, at a high level, presidential meeting where Scarpetta works a crime scene in space, remotely, I found it similarly interesting that the people in power are not ruling out the idea that the problem they are facing in space might be extra-terrestrial. Also a scary but not unexpected attitude given various little nuggets of information being let slip to a ‘Covid distracted’ public of late.
Of course, with Scarpetta now moving in these circles, one has to wonder how long it will be before she comes face to face with Captain Calli Chase, the lead in protagonist from Cornwell’s other main series of books at the moment (reviewed by me here and here). I thought it might even happen in this very novel but, for the time being, the two are not quite inhabiting each other’s personal universe as yet (although I suspect this is only a matter of time now).
I look forward to the day when that crossover comes but, for the time being, Cornwell does just like her main protagonist does in Autopsy, peeling back layers of story with her writer’s scalpel (okay, you know, pen or keyboard) until she cuts back to reveal the truth of the fiction. It’s amazing stuff and, as a bonus to me, when I googled a word to find what I thought was a bad typo, I was happy to also learn a new word... so I won’t be looking for a splash in every plash now, that’s for sure. If you like Cornwell’s Scarpetta books, which surely must have a built in audience by now, then you’re sure to love her latest taut, tension filled procedural thriller. I hope she manages to get the next one out for November so my once and future Christmas ritual can kick in again next year.