Patricia Cornwell has become a big name in crime novels, specializing in the fictional exploits of Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta. Post-Mortem is Cornwell’s first Scarpetta book, first published in 1990, and has the intrepid ME following the trail of a serial killer who specializes in raping and then strangling females who live alone. Of course, it’s inevitable that there will be someone on the inside sabotaging her investigation, and that the killer will for one reason or another target her.
The plot drags in places, but is generally acceptable for this sort of book. The forensic detection elements, while far too few and brief, are interesting, and the serial killer himself is, if not unique, at least not derivative. However, Cornwell’s plot would have profited from devoting more time to the actual science or the detection than on interpersonal squabbling and pointless in-fighting; someday, authors will learn that “characterization” does not mean “make them all annoying and selfish.” The eventual revelation of the villain is, while not obvious, not particularly difficult to predict; readers paying any attention at all will have a pretty good idea by about halfway through the book. All that remains will be filling in the holes and determining motive.
The back of the book calls the read “nerve-shattering,” which is not only hyperbolic, it’s an inaccurate depiction of pages and pages of Kay sitting in cars and offices arguing with the stream of men she thinks is out to get her. It’s just too bad that Cornwell has yet to learn the importance of “showing” over merely “telling.” We have no reason yet to take Kay’s word about anything, and her opinions of everything she sees are far too colored by her own prejudices and blind-spots.
Another problem is that no one in the book is particularly likable. Kay herself is rather paranoid about men hating or oppressing her, Marino is a caricature of a city cop, Lucy is a spoiled brat, and basically everyone has some kind of chip on their shoulder and is doing their level best to ruin everyone else’s case, which seems odd, given that they’re all essentially on the same side. Dr. Scarpetta is constantly sure in the early part of the book that The Man is keeping her down; while no woman in her right mind would argue that sexism is merely a thing of the past, the only real evidence we ever see of it is in Scarpetta’s interpretation of things or assumptions about people, when in her line of work, people are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. It would have been nice to have had the investigation the center of the show, rather than people we have no reason to like or trust and their petty sniping at each other and basically stalling the investigation. One can only hope that children are not really the brats Kay things they are, that cops and detectives are not so simplistically selfish and willfully ignorant as Marino, and that the other people on her team are not so foolishly self-centered and incompetent.
If you like a good police procedural, then by all means give Post-Mortem a shot. It’s at least good enough to make you give the other books in the series a look, if not necessarily good enough to make you a fan yet. This is more a stock police procedural and foray into office politics than it is a “forensic science” piece, so fans of crime labs, forensic psychology, and basically the biological and chemical aspects of detective-work might be a little disappointed. This is also no foray into the criminal (or detective) mind in the vein of Thomas Harris. Fans of Law & Order will like it more than fans of CSI. It is, however, a decent police mystery and not a bad way to while away an afternoon.