My last Scarpetta…
Kay Scarpetta has returned to where she started out all those long years ago, to be Chief Medical Examiner in Virginia. The location means she’ll be handy for her other job, as advisor on the POTUS’ Doomsday committee. She is investigating the brutal murder of a woman when she receives a call informing her she’s needed in the Situation Room. There’s been an incident in a space station and two astronauts have died, the third escaping in the shuttle back to land in Russian-controlled territory.
This, I’m afraid, is a bit of a mess. Cornwell has thrown everything into it – serial killers, cutting edge technology that feels more like science fiction, politics, international skulduggery, poisoning by mystery drugs, personal problems, staffing problems, hints at corruption, etc., etc. Every topic is treated with total superficiality and it’s hard to see exactly what the connecting story is supposed to be. There are hints that somehow the woman’s murder and the space deaths may be connected, which, if true, really is a coincidence too far.
The real problem is that the story doesn’t fill the pages. All these strands are started off, and then nothing happens to move them forward until they are all resolved in a tacked-on climax which of course involves the usual peril to Scarpetta and her family. How many close shaves can these people endure? They’d be safer in a war zone than in government employment in America, apparently. Instead of plot momentum, the pages are filled with pointless detail. Scarpetta cannot walk down a corridor without us being told what colour the carpet is, what the doors are made of, what pictures hang on the wall, how loud or soft her footsteps sound, whether she’s carrying her scene case or rolling it. It can take a page to get from the entrance of a building to the elevator, and the poor reader soon learns to know that there will be another corridor to be described when Scarpetta reaches the desired floor. I don’t need to know that a basin is marble, that a car is a Tesla, that Scarpetta puts gel in her hair in the morning. Not every noun requires an adjective. And I do not need or want to know the make and qualities of every gun every gun-obsessed American owns.
Scarpetta herself is so tedious and self-important and this is not helped by the book being in the always annoying first-person present tense. Everyone is incompetent except for her and her immediate family and inner circle (and frankly even several of them are a bit on the crazy side). Virginia has collapsed into a morass of incompetence and corruption since she left, and she knows she’s been given the job because she’s the only one – the only person in the whole wide world and space above – who’s capable of running the department efficiently. Why is it her responsibility to investigate every crime single-handedly? Does Virginia not employ police detectives? What qualifies her to advise the space programme? Do NASA and the US military have no medics, no scientists, no procedures, no contingency planning? What would happen to America if she died? Would it simply collapse, unable to carry out any function without her?
I stuck it out for over two-thirds and was determined to finish, but it broke me. I couldn’t take one more paragraph of Scarpetta complaining about her secretary, her predecessor, her colleagues, her sister. I couldn’t take one more page of unnecessary description. I couldn’t bear to wait any longer to see if any of the story strands would ever move forward. So I skipped to the end and discovered the dénouement was even worse than I feared. My last Scarpetta. My last Cornwell.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.