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I've read and reviewed a few Cornwell books now after only reading my first one over Christmas. I must admit, I haven't found them all to be particularly strong, this one included, even though it was still an interesting and enjoyable enough read.
One of the things that tempted me about this was a sticker on the front saying that if you don't LOVE this book we'll give you your money back' (I saved the hassle of doing this as I borrowed it from the library!) along with 'A welcome return to form for Dr Kay Scarpetta' - Irish Independent. The tagline reads 'Port Mortuary is literally a port to receive the dead - and the deaths are mounting', which sounded quite intriguing. This fits the crime thriller genre and for those familiar with Cornwell, Scarpetta is one of her much-loved, protagonist characters that features in many novels.
We're introduced to Kay Scarpetta as she's training at the Dover Port Mortuary on a 'groundbreaking' program regarding a new forensic procedure. Meanwhile, a young man literally seems to drop dead miles away back home, only a short distance from Scarpetta's home, on a stretch of land. That in itself the mystery that caused such a stir and evoked Scarpetta's return; the fact that the young man was found bleeding after being locked inside the mortuary cooler was! Is it possible he was alive when he was put in there, that perhaps the paramedics made a mistake?
As Scarpetta investigates the man's death and uses revolutionary technology to reveal the impact of internal damage, the man's death becomes more and more of a mystery. As a parallel storyline, we learn of case Benton is taking on, that of a young man admitting to a crime Benton is convinced he didn't commit (Benton is Scarpetta's love interest, and their relationship develops throughout the novels from dating to being married). We see some familiar faces and names, including Marino and Jack Fielding who is now running the CFC in Scarpetta's absence and is apparently running it in to the ground, so each character adds a bit more to the premise.
Without going in to detail on the plot, the rest of the novel investigates the mysterious death of the man and Benton's case, and as the story unfolds the web of characters increases. Links to government agencies, OTWAHL & DARPA initiatives, secretive schemes and the like begin to surface, bringing about a host of technological references. Gradually, bit by bit, pieces of the puzzle begin to fit together but things do get more complex rather than simpler as the answers fall in to place.
I really enjoyed some of the technological aspects about the premise because it's accurate, insightful and gives the novel an edge. It's interesting to read and learn about things like nanoterrorism and autobots because even though some of it seems quite sci-fi, it's real and they're things not often covered in murderous crime thrillers. Or at least not the ones I read anyway.
The characters were reasonably warm and with some depth, even though I do think the depth could have been greater. In other novels, those like Lucy, Marino and Kay seemed to come alive far better than they did in Port Mortuary, so fans of Cornwell may well be disappointed by this. The scenes were made relatively vivid by description, but again, this could have been better too.
I think that some of the problem here lay in the premise. The focus on technology seemed to be at the expense of a clearly understandable plot that made sense; at times I found myself confused, at others just blasé because it bored me. The pace seemed to slow when so much detail went in to the various secret initiatives and technology, so reading about it seemed to drag which was unfortunate.
On the back is further praise: 'A gripping read made more chilling by Cornwel's note that the technologies' that she refers to, things like autobots and nanoterrorism, 'actually exist' - Metro. I'd agree that it's more chilling because of this edge and it made it quite an intelligent read, but I wouldn't necessarily say it was a 'gripping' read. I actually found it quite hard to keep my attention focused on it as there was nothing to really engross me and make me want to keep reading. By the end, I did feel a bit disappointed and not really sure what was going on.
All in all, I probably wouldn't recommend this; for Cornwell fans it may be a disappointment in terms of characters, and for those unfamiliar with her books it will probably seem quite slow and boring.
23 chapters over 488 pages
I have been reading Patricia Cornwell's books for some years now and I always look forward to the next one. Her latest effort is however, quite disappointing. It's not a bad book, but in my opinion it is below the usual high-Cornwell-standards.
In case you have never read Scarpetta's books before I would not advise you to start with this one. Go back and read Cornwell's earlier novels (I believe there are 17 other Scarpetta's books before this one!), like the amazing Body Farm and Point of Origin. Although each Scarpetta's book can be read in isolation, you would miss a lot if you do not know the characters and their complex personal history.
I won't give you a synopsis, I don't want to spoil the fun. Suffice to say that this is the first book from Scarpetta's own point of view, written in the first person. This should give you an insight of the complex psychology of the famous forensic pathologist in the world, but it fails to thrill.
The various characters become more complex and more troubled in each book, and not necessarily in a good way. The story throws up a military past of Key Scarpetta, which to my knowledge had never been hinted at before (but I may be wrong).
Also, I find the fact that everyone appers to have a personal grudge against Scarpetta a bit too unbelievable. Well, of course this is fiction and Scarpetta is the main character, but rather than her being involved as a forensic pathologist, in the most recent Cornwell's books it seems that most villains have something personal against here.
Finally, this book lacks action, the description of the autopsies (which are usually quite interesting) bores and a the end you put the book down feeling a bit disappointment. Maybe this is because I am used to expect a lot more from Patricia Cornwell, so I would not say "don't buy this book" but be prepared to be thrilled but not Cornwell-thrilled.
Dr. Kay Scarpetta is a forensic pathologist, who is rushed back home from the Dover Port Mortuary as an emergency unfolds. A young man died and was taken to be examined, but later it appears that he may in fact have been alive when he was put in the cooler. Furthermore, on closer examination, his body had received horrific internal injuries, the likes of which Scarpetta has never seen before. At the same time, a little boy was killed in his own backyard, and Scarpetta's husband Benton (of the FBI) is convinced that the young man being charged with the death is innocent. But as the pair tries to make head and tails of the two cases, Scarpetta has the growing suspicion that someone is trying to push her out of her job. Just what has been going on while she's been away?
This is the eighteenth book in Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series, but it is the first book by Cornwell that I've read. This isn't a problem as I understand that each book is a stand-alone story in its own right, but I think it may have helped if I'd read some of the previous books first. I felt like the characters all had a past, things which I was supposed to understand or take for granted as the reader, but as I didn't know anything about them I felt like I couldn't take to the characters fully. That's how I felt near the beginning, at any rate.
I found Kay Scarpetta to be a very likeable character. She tries to do good by everyone else, and it was easy to see how she had such a hard time, feeling like someone was trying to push her out of her job. It's a very unsettling feeling, and Cornwell conveyed it well, especially as the book was written from Scarpetta's point of view. I believe that Cornwell's books haven't been written from Scarpetta's perspective for a while, so if you're well acquainted with the Kay Scarpetta series you may enjoy this change. For me, who was meeting Dr. Scarpetta for the first time, just thought it was nice to get to know a character through her own eyes.
Benton Wesley, Scarpetta's husband, is a character who I didn't get on well with at all. He used to be the chief profiler for the Special Behavioural Unit of the FBI (incidentally, this is the same unit that features on the show 'Criminal Minds', although the two are totally unrelated) and has just rejoined them to help with the cases. I understand that as a member of the FBI there is a lot of information he may not be able to discuss, but he just took it to the point of rudeness. In conversation with his wife, working on the same cases, several times if she asked him a question he would just completely ignore it and talk about something else. Unless I'm missing something, I just found Benton rude and unsympathetic. A forgettable character.
I'm finding this quite a difficult review to write, as I never really settled into the book properly. I thought it was quite confusing, as the different plots fitted together in an entwined, complicated way. I may have been tired when I read part of the book, but I don't think being fully awake would have helped me understand any better! By the time I'd finished the book, I still felt confused about some things, which for me is a real drawback in any book.
I don't think that the acronyms or forensic language really helped matters, to be honest. There were loads of acronyms throughout the book, which were all very similar. Just three examples are the AFME (Armed Forces Medical Examiner), the AFDIL (Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory) and the DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency). Although with each acronym the full name is given at least once, with there being so many they all blended into one which totally lost me. As for the forensic language, whilst the characters were examining the bodies there was plenty of specific, technical language. I have a very basic knowledge of medicine and the human body and can make educated guesses about what was described, based on word derivations and such, but for the most part I hadn't a clue what they were talking about. It lost me right there and then, and for any less confident reader I'm sure it would be very intimidating.
One thing I found odd was that Scarpetta was awake for the whole book - well, at least the first 450 pages (bear in mind that the book only has 496 pages!). The whole book was set over the period of several days, but she doesn't get a wink of sleep. I suppose it is possible to stay awake for this long, but not really practical, and the fact that she was still able to function at such a clear, competent level without any sleep just pushed the boundaries of what was believable and what was not to me. It's only a little thing, but it was something I noticed and it felt out of place...as little as a nap in the car would have sufficed, but it never came!
Finally, I have heard that many other of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta books culminate in a big action scene, with Scarpetta and the criminal coming face to face. Well, it doesn't happen in this book. Scarpetta actually does very little of the investigating herself, and at the end there was no big, exciting climax or anything. It was quite disappointing, and the whole book just ended in a bit of an odd, abrupt way. Maybe this is normal and is a part of Cornwell's writing that I'm not used to, but I was disappointed by it.
Overall, obviously I can't compare this with any of Cornwell's other books so can't tell you if hardened fans will enjoy it as much or not: I can only say what I thought of it. As I say, I was disappointed by several aspects of the book as a whole. This is just another book in the series, nothing really that special or stand-out. Perhaps it may not have been the best place to start in Cornwell's repertoire, but either way I can't say I'm particularly drawn to read any of her others. If you're into forensic pathology and novels on the same subject, you may enjoy this book more than I did; if you're not, this may not be the book for you.
A paperback copy and a Kindle copy can each be bought from Amazon for the same price of £4.49. Alternatively, The Book People are currently selling paperback copies for £6.39 each.