We gave it a C+
Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised, but Dr. Kay Scarpetta is getting more than a little bit paranoid (bristling exchanges with almost every male cop she meets, a spiked fence around her palatial new home on the James River). After all, it’s hard enough being the Virginia state medical examiner and performing one grisly autopsy after another. Then there’s her gig for the FBI as a ”consulting forensic pathologist” who specializes in tracking down serial killers and other nightmarish figures from the reliably morbid imagination of her creator, Patricia Cornwell. The tortured love affair Scarpetta’s been carrying on with her married FBI colleague Benton Wesley over the last couple of novels (The Body Farm, From Potter’s Field) doesn’t appear to be doing her much good either. Thrown together at scenes of carnage, the two make furtive love in lonely hotel rooms, then make a brisk show of pretending nothing’s going on.
Apart from Dr. Scarpetta’s own increasing touchiness, the author’s cast of characters is beginning to resemble that of a worn-out sitcom. The crass but lovable Capt. Pete Marino of the Richmond police department is still smitten with her. And her brilliant, lesbian niece, Lucy, the FBI trainee, continues to be, well, a brilliant, lesbian FBI trainee.
Cornwell’s plots are becoming formulaic as well, increasingly lacking the kind of penetrating forensic detail that made her early novels such as Postmortem and Body of Evidence so grimly diverting. Cause of Death reads less like a crime novel than a screen treatment for a David Koresh-meets-Tom Clancy TV movie-of-the-week. It’s all gimmicks: an evil religious-cult leader in league with Arab and North Korean terrorists; an underwater crime scene giving superdoc Scarpetta a chance to show off her expertise as a diver; a vaguely narrated and thoroughly unbelievable scheme to take over a nuclear-power plant and steal bargeloads of fissionable plutonium; and even a cute little robot invented by the intrepid Lucy.
Throw in one of the most banal devices in crime fiction — a series of murders linked by obvious clues that nobody but the dauntless Dr. Scarpetta can see — and what it all adds up to is by far the weakest entry in Cornwell’s once-original series. What were intriguing crime procedurals have degenerated into insipid Perils of Pauline melodramas. And that’s a shame. Because when she wants to be Cornwell’s the best in the business. C+