Review: Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell

I’d first read and loved the Kay Scarpetta series as a teenager, devouring the books as they came out all the way up until around 2005 when life happened and I generally stopped reading. In order to pick it back up I’d been planning to re-read the series to refresh my memory, though why I think this was a great idea considering how badly John Grisham’s or Sidney Sheldon’s books have fared over time I do not know. Spoilers follow.

Kay Scarpetta’s novels have a set of fixed main characters: her own character of Chief Medical Examiner, the cop Marino, the FBI profiler Benton, and the young niece Lucy. There are also a bunch of office staff, a housekeeper, and family in another state. I loved Benton’s first arrival and remembering catching myself smiling wide when I realised it was him, especially as I thought he wouldn’t be arriving until a later book. The tech is hilariously outdated to the point where I couldn’t not eye roll over another gushing sentence containing floppy discs or IBM machines.

I had never realised how differently written the books are. Postmortem essentially takes place over maybe 15 long conversations padded either side with some minor descriptions. Some conversations are between people other than Scarpetta, such as the one where Marino interviewed the husband of Lori Peterson which is relayed through Marino bringing her the tape. Others are straightforward investigative brainstorming, such as Benton and Scarpetta, and the ones between Marino and Scarpetta are a balance of getting to know and uncomfortable truths, especially the one about Bill.

Kay Scarpetta is a woman in a male-dominated field and it’s referred to a couple of times, such as:

I was one of four women in my class at Hopkins. I was too naive in the beginning to realize what was happening. The sudden creaking of chairs and loud shuffling of paper when a professor would call on me were not coincidence. It was not chance when old tests made the rounds but were never available to me. The excuses – “You wouldn’t be able to read my writing” or “Someone else is borrowing them right now” – were too universal when I went from student to student on the few occasions I missed a lecture and needed to copy someone else’s notes. I was a small insect faced with a formidable male network web in which I might be ensnared but never a part.
Isolation is the cruelest of punishments, and it had never occurred to me that I was something less than human because I wasn’t a man. One of my female classmates eventually quit, another suffered a complete nervous breakdown. Survival was my only hope, success my only revenge.

She’s divorced, without children, and married to her job having risen up in the ranks all the while having to prove herself because she’s a woman which which to my teenage self was inspiring though perhaps not the divorced part!

However, I never picked up on her views of Marino and it’s spoilt my opinion of her. As the novel is told from her point of view we see a lot of her characterisation of Marino, such as:

  • I wasn’t sure if he didn’t like women, or if he just didn’t like me.
  • 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.
  • It was idle speculation to go back to the beginning and try to figure out what had gone wrong. Occasionally I thought about it anyway. What it was about me. I had been polite to Marino the first time we met, had offered him a firm and respectful handshake while his eyes went as flat as two tarnished pennies.

Being disappointed with a role model is an odd sensation. It’s an even odder sensation when it’s a fictional role model and when you didn’t even realise they were one in the first place. Turns out that Kay Scarpetta was one of mine and re-reading Postmortem may have been a mistake. There is no warmth to her character and it all feels very clinical.

The story itself is engrossing, in fact the whole book is. Horrific and calculated murders by an unknown assailant are guaranteed to add an edge. The actual solving of the crime was entirely based on luck and instead of detailing the methods to catch the guy, the crimes were left as easy infodump exposition at the end of the book after his death. This seems odd in a series which is all about the methodical gathering of evidence by a medical examiner! The guy would not have been caught had he not been provoked, however, the provocation and everything else was left to so much chance – I would have expected him to have commited plenty more murders out of spite and I don’t think I’d have blamed him.

I clearly read this as someone who knew the story and the characters which is probably clouding my judgement a bit. I knew the husband wasn’t the killer and didn’t provide any info except the smell which rendered his entirely long interview pointless. I knew the handsoap and the lit up traces were important but going through the lengthy discovery wasn’t necessary something I needed. Knowing the book allowed me to really focus on the writing though. The dialogue flowed well and never didn’t feel natural. The descriptions were enough without being overbearing and the book flowed well between sections.

5/5 – With all that I have written I feel it wouldn’t be a 5/5, but this is a great book and my dislike of the book is in credit on how good it is and how complex the characters are. I really hope the other books in the series continue to be this great.

My Goodreads updates:

  • 01/22 26.0%
    – Scarpetta is a cool aunt: pouring ten year old Lucy a glass of wine!
    – Benton’s arrival actually made me smile broadly – I’d not remembered him turning up in the first book!
    – The husband interrogation scene took way too long, but felt really organic. I think this is why I love Patricia Cornwell’s writing.
    – I am remembering bits and pieces from when I first read it.
    – A lot of foreshadowing.
  • 01/23 48.0%
    – I’d not realised before how different her style is – so far the book has mostly consisted of very long dialogues.
    – Who is Bill and why don’t I remember him especially as he seems so nice!
    – I don’t think I understand Scarpetta’s dislike of Marino, seems overly harsh at times.
  • 01/24 60.0%
    – I now remember why I didn’t remember Bill.
    – Marino helping Scarpetta makes no sense with their relationship
    – The way Scarpetta/Cornwell is gushing about computers I’m really looking forward to the next books in the series when technology advances.
  • 01/25 74.0%
    I’d forgotten how uncomfortable her scenes can be – the last 14% were pretty much just the Abby Turnbull scene followed by the Marino one in the car [though most of theirs seem to be in the car!]. Very uncomfortable listening.
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