Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Port Mortuary Finds Scarpetta Disconnected From the Present & Unable to Forget the Past

I've been a Patricia Cornwell fan since my mom introduced me to her books more than a decade ago. Cornwell is the author of the Kay Scarpetta series, the Andy Brazil series, and the Win Garano series. Her longest running series is Scarpetta's.

The series began with Cornwell's debut novel Postmortem in 1990. She had a career as a journalist before she began writing fiction, and published a non-fiction piece Ruth, a Portrait: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham.

The latest installment in the series is Port Mortuary, the eighteenth Scarpetta book. As a true Scarpetta fan, I was pleased to learn more about Kay Scarpetta. If you read my post yesterday about another series (Kathy Reichs' Tempe Brennan books), you know that I look for three things in long-running series books:
  1. more information about the main character
  2. some pivotal character growth and development
  3. a good, solid plot
Cornwell delivered on numbers one and two, but fell short on the third. Readers of Port Mortuary most definitely learn more about Kay Scarpetta, the series' main character. Scarpetta is a forensic medical examiner who during the span of the series has worked in Virginia, Florida, and New York. For this newest novel, her practice has moved to Boston (well, Cambridge) to a state-of-the-art building built to her specifications. The problem? She wasn't there for its development, and she has also missed its first few months in operation.

When Port Mortuary opens, Scarpetta has spent months in Delaware at Dover Air Force Base, working to help identify military remains and to practice new technology doing virtual autopsies. A difficult case opens up and Scarpetta is suddenly thrust back into the world of her new project, the Cambridge Forensic Center. What she finds is a working environment less than up to her standards, and she is forced to attempt to fix things as the case continues to unfold. Interspersed with the present time, Scarpetta also has semi-flashbacks from her earliest days with the military. Back then she was assigned to a case in South Africa as part of a military scholarship she received in college. Her duties there still haunt her, and she seems unable to separate her current work from that previous period of time.

Perhaps as a result of all this angst about the past, Port Mortuary is somewhat lacking in action in the present. Although there are interesting cases in the novel, and also storylines concerning secondary characters (Scarpetta's niece Lucy, husband Benton, and long-time colleague Pete Marino all appear throughout the novel), Scarpetta herself seems removed from that action. Readers find out about case developments as Scarpetta discovers them -- which is to say, late in the game. Although this could have been very purposeful on Cornwell's part (after all, the novel seems to focus on Scarpetta's inability to interact in the present), as a reader it is disconcerting -- and a bit off-putting. Rather than seeing events unfold, the plot action seems to be related as an after-thought to the reader.

Kay Scarpetta remains one of my favorite fictional characters, a heroine with true grit (lovely metaphor, especially given the Oscars were this past weekend, don't you think?). Even if I wasn't wholly satisfied with Port Mortuary, I'm still grateful to Cornwell for yet another glimpse into Scarpetta's world.

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