Review: Body of Evidence by Patricia Cornwell

Body of Evidence is the second book of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series which I’m currently revisiting in order to bring myself up to speed to read the books she’s released over the last ten years. Review of Postmortem, book 1 is here.

I am a stickler for doing things in order. I won’t watch an episode of a TV show unless I start from the beginning, with new music I’ll always go back to the debut album first [usually then followed by a ‘best of’ if they’ve been around a while], and with books I wouldn’t even entertain jumping into the middle of a series which is exactly why I am going through the Kay Scarpetta series again as there’s a lot I don’t remember from reading them as a teen. At the time I would borrow them from the library and my friend and I would almost argue in order to determine who would get to read one of them first.

As such I don’t understand how I could have missed this book which is only the second in the series, but I have never read this before or even recall it being mentioned in other Scarpetta novels. Spoilers for this novel and minor ones for future novels follow.

There are a few main things I remembered from the series with which I’ve been going into this reread. Some of them I know build up slowly and only happen in later books.

  • One murder solved through sparkly handwash residue – this happened in Postmortem, book 1.
  • One investigation which involved using darklight in a house where a murder occurred some years prior which had been sold at least once since. Scarpetta managed to find blood evidence in a bathroom, though.
  • Lucy: Growing up, becoming a computer genius, learning to fly helicopters and possibly having her own firm with her girlfriend. I believe she suffers an attack at one point, too.
  • Marino: I vaguely recall him moving away at some point plus getting a divorce from his wife we never see.
  • Benton and Scarpetta to start dating and I think living together.
  • A serial killer couple or siblings that end up killing over several books and aggressively pursue Scarpetta until one of them is killed in a train or subway station.
  • Scarpetta cooking elaborate food. I did actually own her cookbook at some point, too.
  • A detailed description of the FBI’s Potter’s Field.

It’s a very contrasting experience going through this book the first time knowing the characters and the series, but being completely left in the dark about the story. There were quite a few shocking moments where I would even mutter to myself which, if you’re walking through the woods with the audiobook, I’d recommend making sure there aren’t people around. I’m afraid there’s a couple which now believes I am crazy..

The relationship with Mark had me go through all the motions. Knowing that she would at some point somehow be in a relationship with Benton, this relationship was clearly not going to last, but there could have been many reasons for it, including his death. His disappearance after she visited him in New York shocked me and had me wondering what was going on for a long time. She did meet him in the law firm, right? How can he have just disappeared and never worked there in the first place? [The calls where she attempts to track him down are the ‘gasping in the woods’ moment] Then, the revelation he’s an FBI agent. I also didn’t see that coming and I’m annoyed at Benton for not having mentioned training Mark or that he’s undercover. Sure, it’s an investigation and the FBI, and particularly Benton who always follows the rules, would keep things close to their chest, but they’re all sharing data of the murders and investigation and I do think this is something that should have been shared, though, I suppose, it would’ve rendered the Mark mystery dead in the water in an instant. After their night in Palm Beach my heart nearly broke for Scarpetta when she allowed herself to fall for and think of a future with Mark, all the while I knew at the back of my head that this won’t work out:

While Mark showered and shaved, I stared out at the day, and never had colors been so bright or the sun shone so magnificently on the tiny offshore island of Key West. I would buy a condo where Mark and I would make love for the rest of our lives. I would ride a bicycle for the first time since I was a child, take up tennis again, and quit smoking. I would work harder at getting along with my family, and Lucy would be our frequent guest. I would visit Louie’s often and adopt PJ as our friend. I would watch sunlight dance over the sea and say prayers to a woman named Beryl Madison whose terrible death had given new meaning to my life and taught me to love again.

In addition to introducing the intriguing Mark storyline, this book also had a lot of action going for it, including:

  • Travel: Scarpetta travels to New York and Palm Beach at the drop of a hat.
  • Terrorist plane hijacking: An orange thread found on Beryl Madison was also found on the body of a dead agent at the scene of a plane hijacking where the terrorists disappeared!
  • Marino’s car blowing up: The book made specific mention of it being important to him.
  • The morgue being broken into.
  • Sparacino in general.
  • The sister killing herself while Scarpetta was there.
  • The guy from the car wash killing himself.

However, none of that ultimately really matters. Sure, the killings were premedidated and very loosely [loose thread and all, ha ha..] connected to an airport, however, all it did was add confusion. And, just like the first book, the killings wouldn’t have been solved had it not been for the killer coming to Scarpetta’s house and attacking her. This coupled with yet another lengthy exposition of motive and planning of the killer at the end leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. It’s a cop out and cheapens the rest of the book. Why would I need to have known about the abuse or Sparacino’s dealings, or even having read the book or met Mark. I’m a fan of red herrings, but this – just like the first book – feels like it would have been another book and Cornwell decided on this killer but didn’t make all the ends meet.

I suppose the book really is a roundabout effort in disproving evidence and it’s a curious way to do it in the second book of a now 20+ books longrunning series. Obviously Patricia Cornwell wouldn’t have known she’d still be releasing Scarpetta books in 2017, but I wonder if she deliberately mentioned the unreliability of evidence to perhaps ensure she wouldn’t come under flak if she ever got something wrong in a future book.

The writing of the book is similar in style to the first one with a lot being down to conversation though she’s added in more descriptions, particularly as there were more locations due to the travel. I also feel that the conversations didn’t last quite as long as in the first book. I’m still amazed how well they work and are written though, for example there’s a lengthy discussion in the middle of the book where Benton, Marino, and Scarpetta discuss the case and Benton informs them of the connection to the hijacking. The scene is a back and forth between them and it’s easy to get lost in the discussion when Cornwell interjects the conversation with:

His eyes glanced past me, and he was tapping an ink pen against the knuckle of his left thumb.

This is just one sentence and doesn’t describe the pen or him or anything else, but it works wonderfully in setting the scene and turning it into more than just a conversation. I think I was particularly drawn to this moment, because it’s just a simple and humanising and yet often unnoticed action, but here it makes me a part of it much more than a paragraph describing the elegant, no doubt Mont Blanc, pen and perhaps the suit and paper and table ever could. In fact, I don’t recall anything else about the room, except that they’re at the FBI’s HQ and needed a Visitors’ Pass and walked through glass hallways before this, but all I needed was that sentence.

Fielding is described in this book and the description stayed with me because it teases depth to the character without going into it too much:

Just then Fielding walked in, his orangutan arms hanging out of the short sleeves of his surgical greens, his muscular hands lightly coated with the talc lining the latex gloves he had been wearing downstairs. Fielding was his own work of art. God knows how many hours each week he spent sculpting himself in some Nautilus room somewhere. It was my theory that his obsession with body building was inversely proportional to his obsession with his job. A competent deputy chief, he had been on board little more than a year and was already showing signs of burnout. The more disenchanted he got, the bigger he got. I gave him another two years before he retreated to the tidier, more lucrative world of hospital pathology, or became the heir apparent to the Incredible Hulk.

There are also wonderful mentions of Sammy the squirrel throughout the book in a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ manner. The full quotes which again show how seamlessly Cornwell adds flavour to the setting, are at the end of this post.

With the first book I struggled with the her relationship with Marino and her treatment of him. Presumably bearing in mind that he saved her life and also watched her house for several weeks thinking she might be attacked, she softened a little towards him and once even invited him to dinner, but also still continued with comments towards him, such as:

Settling down in his seat and shutting his eyes, he mumbled, “I need a vacation.”

“So do I,” I said. “I need a vacation from you.”

In reviewing an event from Sparacino’s life, she thought this:

The image of the little fatso offering his sweaty hand and saying such a thing was so pathetic I didn’t laugh. Had I been that embarrassed by a childhood hero, I never would have forgotten it, either.

I think it’s hard for me to come to terms that Scarpetta isn’t perfect and has faults which aren’t ones that are common with protagonists.

5/5 – Attributing a number rating to this was hard. I didn’t enjoy the solution to the crime and the way it was presented, both of which so similar to the first book, however, the story and the well executed twists as well as the writing and the characters, did make up for it and seeing how much enjoyed it throughout it really could only be a 5/5.

The life and death of Sammy, the albino squirrel:

After I hung up, I fixed a cup of hot tea and paced the kitchen, pausing every so often to gaze out at the bright December day. Sammy, one of Richmond’s few albino squirrels, was plundering my bird feeder again. For an instant we were eye to eye, his furry cheeks frantically working, seeds flying out from under his paws, his scrawny white tail a twitching question mark against the blue sky. We had become acquainted last winter as I stood before my window and watched his repeated attempts at leaping from a branch only to slide slowly off the coned top of the feeder, his paws grabbing wildly at thin air on his way down. After a remarkable number of tumbles to terra firma, Sammy finally got the hang of it. Every so often I would go out and throw him a handful of peanuts, and it had gotten to the point where if I didn’t see him for a while, I experienced a tug of anxiety followed by joyous relief when he reappeared to clean me out again.

We were idly watching Sammy Squirrel’s antics around the bird feeder. After Marino had driven me back from the hospital and let me out at my house, I invited him in for coffee.

“I’ll keep checking,” he said, turning away from the bird feeder as Sammy Squirrel watched us with pink-rimmed eyes. “What about you?”

I hung up and didn’t answer when he immediately called back. I listened numbly to his protests on the machine, blood pounding in my neck as the images rushed back at me, images of Marino’s car hissing as flames snarled at arching blasts of water from tumescent fire hoses snaking over my street. When I had discovered the charred little corpse at the end of my driveway, something inside me snapped. The gas tank in Marino’s car must have exploded at the very instant Sammy Squirrel was frantically hopping along the power line. Crazily, he leapt for safety. For a split second, his paws simultaneously made contact with the grounded transformer and primary line. Twenty thousand volts of electricity surged through his tiny body, burning him to a crisp and blowing the fuse.

I had scooped him into a shoe box and buried him in my rose garden, the idea of seeing his blackened shape in the light of morning more than I could bear.

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