by Patricia Cornwell
“ The dead have never bothered me.
It’s the living that I fear. ”
About six or seven years ago, I borrowed a bunch of books from a friend who had an impressive library. Most of the books that I borrowed, I read and returned. But this one. . .
. . .see, I ended up moving shortly after borrowing those books and this particular little novel was still mixed in with my own books. It was a well-worn mass production paperback and you could barely read the title on the spine because it was so broken. I threw it up on my new set of bookshelves in my brand new place, and didn’t think much of it.
Another couple of years later, I was home alone. It was a quiet, dreary day and I was bored. I grabbed a book off of the bookshelf at random and piled up on the couch to log an hour of two of reading. Trying to pass the time before my boyfriend got home.
And I stayed on the couch the entire night, in a feverish rush to finish this book.
Postmortem is the first of 24 – and counting – novels in the Kay Scarpetta Mystery Series. This particular series is the one that Patricia Cornwell is best noted for, the collection spanning nearly 30 years of writing. After devouring this first book, I ran out and got the second and third, and thankfully Christmas was right around the corner – my boyfriend bought all the rest of the books for me (wrapping them individually and piling them all under the tree). I was hooked.
While I have come to love many of the books in this series for a variety of reasons, Postmortem is one of my favorites, mainly because it is the first. We meet and get to know the dark and twisty parts of Kay Scarpetta that she allows us to see. She’s a woman playing in a man’s world, and while she’s excelling, it takes an infinite amount of determination and work to stay on top. Kay is the Chief Medical Examiner for the state of Virginia, and each book is centered around a particular case (or cases) she’s working to solve. Some books carry the killer(s) across several novels and some are solved by the last page of just one particular book.
The other characters featured, such as Detective Pete Marino, FBI profiler Benton Wesley, and Kay’s niece, Lucy, grow throughout the series. They age, they change careers, they have romantic interests, and they become thickly embedded into the storyline and under Kay’s skin. They become people that you feel like you really know, and that is a writing characteristic that has always appealed to me. I am a sucker for a good series, because I become the happiest reader when I can invest heavily in characters and their development.
As Postmortem begins, Dr. Kay Scarpetta is called to the scene of an apparent death by strangulation. There appears to be a serial killer on the loose in Richmond, and this murder is just one in a string of recent unsolved murders in the area. Cornwell pulled inspiration for this particular type of serial killing straight from the headlines; Timothy Wilson Spencer, who terrorized the the Richmond area over a fateful fall season, killed in the same manner.
Also on the scene is the cantankerous Pete Marino, who’s persistent moodiness is a perpetual thorn in Kay’s side. Marino has a knack for inserting himself into her cases and always makes sure she knows he’s around, either with his loud and obnoxious conversation or with his body — always too close for comfort.
” I wondered where Marino was going with this. He was hard to read, and I’d never decided if he was a good poker player or simply slow. He was exactly the sort of detective I avoided when given a choice — a cock of the walk and absolutely unreachable. He was pushing fifty, with a face life had chewed on, and long wisps of graying hair parted low on one side and combed over his balding pate. At least six feet tall, he was bay-windowed from decades of bourbon and beer. His unfashionably wide red-and-blue-striped tie was oily around the neck from summers of sweat. Marino was the stuff of tough-guy flicks — a crude, crass gumshoe who probably had a foul-mouthed parrot for a pet and coffee table littered with Hustler magazines. “
One thing that is fascinating to read is the use of technology and forensic science. This book was published in 1990 and it’s ridiculously crazy how far the medical examining system has come since then. There is mention of a criminal database but not one in actual existence. DNA’s help in catching criminals something that can only be dreamed of at this point. As the series and modern science in criminal justice advances, the author goes to great lengths to become as well-versed as humanly possible on the subject and again, it’s fascinating to watch that progression. Cornwell is meticulous in her description and logic, having immersed herself into the world of criminology and forensic science as a passion in her personal life.
The killer has left behind several clues – most of which are nearly unseen to the naked eye. With the use of black light analysis, Dr. Scarpetta discovers unsettling bodily fluids, and she’s also intrigued by an unusual smell left behind on the victim. Kay begins to work on finding links between the murdered women, as well as trying to navigate through her murky personal life. Her precocious niece, 10-year old Lucy, is spending time in her home and keeping Kay on her toes. Lucy comes from a bit of a broken home; her mother is far more interested in her flavor-of-the-week boyfriends or her creation of children’s books to pay attention to her daughter. Lucy has smarts that border on genius-status, and she’s proficient in the relatively new art of computer science. The evolution of Lucy throughout the series is probably the most dramatic, and one of the most interesting. The love that Kay has for Lucy is that of a mother and daughter, and both fill a void in the other’s life.
“ I didn’t want her to be like me, robbed of innocence and idealism, baptized in the bloody waters of randomness and cruelty, the fabric of trust forever torn. ”
Kay is perturbed to have her case spun out into the mainstream media, and dismayed when several classified items are brought to light for the public. It seems there may be a leak coming from the inside, and that further perpetuates Kay’s sense of paranoia about the people surrounding her. Finding it difficult to trust anyone leaves Kay in an unsettling position, and leaves her coming across as cold and uncaring to the people in her life. She has built walls around her for the sake of her sanity; her job can be difficult and taxing on the emotional state. She has had to learn to cut parts of herself off in order to solve murders, catch rapists, and put awful people behind bars. This theme is seen throughout the series of books in their entirety, as Kay struggles to maintain personal relationships that invade her work space.
As Dr. Scarpetta learns more about the victims, she unknowingly puts herself in harm’s way. Crucial bits of information leave her vulnerable to the killer and in the end, she must rush to figure things out before it’s too late, relying on her wits and instincts to get her through alive.
” These strangling cases were the most difficult of my career, and I was gripped by the fear I was becoming too caught up in them. Maybe I was losing my rational, methodical way of doing things. Maybe I was making mistakes. “
I give Postmortem 4.5 out of 5 stars. This is a fast-paced and easy-to-read mystery that, regardless of the science involved, is easy to follow. Some of the things that Cornwell comes up with over the entirety of the series is genius and unique, and fans of shows such as Criminal Minds and CSI will appreciate the depth into which the solving of the murders go.