We gave it a C+
Years ago, according to a joke in the publishing industry, the way to have a surefire best-seller was to call your book Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog — since there was always an audience for anything about Honest Abe, or medicine, or man’s best friend. Nowadays doctor stories are still hot, but Lincoln and canines don’t have the drawing power they did in gentler times. Murder, for instance, is a much bigger attraction. And so is a strong female hero doing what used to be labeled ”man’s work.”
It’s not entirely surprising, then, that the novels of Patricia D. Cornwell have acquired a substantial following. Cornwell offers juicy homicides and a narrator-sleuth in the Sara Paretsky/Sue Grafton mode: divorced, intense Kay Scarpetta of Richmond. But more than that, Kay is Dr. Scarpetta, Virginia’s chief medical examiner. And though Cornwell’s not an MD herself, she picked up considerable expertise by working in a medical examiner’s office in Virginia. As the titles of her books (Postmortem, Body of Evidence) emphasize, the gruesome details of forensic medicine give her mysteries their edge.
Murder plus feminism plus medicine: an audience-grabbing combination. Once you’re grabbed, however, what you get from Cornwell is often uninspired — especially in All That Remains, which has reached the best-seller charts but may well be the weakest of the three Scarpetta novels. The plot centers on a series of killings around Williamsburg, Va. In each case a teenage couple disappear while out driving. Months later, their decomposed bodies are discovered in the woods. The pressure to solve the crimes escalates when the fifth girl to die, along with her boyfriend, is identified as the daughter of Pat Harvey, the President’s national drug-policy director.
Was this latest killing just another in the series? Or a copycat crime perpetrated by one of Harvey’s enemies? And why does the FBI seem to be suppressing evidence? Cornwell tries hard to churn these questions into conspiracy-thriller suspense, but the cover-up brouhaha eventually peters out. The ultimate solution, in fact, has less to do with sleuthing than with coincidence, and the final bloodbath registers only as unconvincing, hysterical melodrama.
If the doctor herself were irresistible company, or a compelling narrator, the unsatisfying plot here might not matter so much. Unfortunately, Scarpetta’s something of a stick. She’s also a no-more-than-serviceable storyteller. But Scarpetta is undeniably fearless when describing the ghastly sights and stenches of the medical examiner’s job. And even though the medical detective work is rarely of central importance this time, there’s enough of it to inject some authentic chills into a highly artificial thriller. C+