By Mark Harris
Updated July 17, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Welcome back to the cadaver-clogged, formaldehyde-steeped, lovelorn world of Dr. Kay Scarpetta, the chief medical examiner of the state of Virginia and the heroine of a series of novels by Patricia Cornwell that have soared in popularity while plummeting in quality. Point of Origin, the ninth Scarpetta installment in as many years, might as well be titled Decay by Deadline. Gone is the tachycardiac sense of accelerating dread that characterized Postmortem (1990) and Body of Evidence (1991), the skillfully woven thrillers that won Cornwell her reputation as a player in the realm of literary mayhem. The meat-and-potatoes plot, unpolished language, and are-we-there-yet pacing of this new volume are what happens when an author’s work suddenly has to keep time with the exigencies of book contracts and a publisher’s burning need for a big summer title rather than with the less predictable dictates of her own imagination.

For those of you curious about the new mystery’s plot, here’s the summary: arson, horse farm, shadowy media mogul, unidentifiable body, escaped psycho, surgical removal of faces, back-story-heavy return of characters from earlier books, climactic helicopter chase. And so on. None of which is very grabby (the book’s basic rhythm is hmmm, uh-oh, blecch!, repeat), so let’s get to a far more suspenseful question: Is Kay Scarpetta gay, or what? Because the novels, clunkiness aside, do seem to be developing rather surprisingly along those lines.

Faithful readers already know that Cornwell’s most interesting character is a lesbian—Scarpetta’s niece, Lucy, who has grown, since the first book, from a precocious, lonely child into a brilliant, emotionally volatile, (now ex-) FBI agent whose unfortunate tendency to become romantically involved with crazy women drives this mystery, as it has before. Cranky, scowling, and these days borderline suicidal, Lucy, always a scene-stealer, is so vivid that it’s hard not to notice how washed-out and undeveloped the nominal protagonist of these books has become.

Scarpetta herself is, in fact, looking more and more like a remnant of those pre-Ellen days when pop culture’s professional women of a certain age who might otherwise have been identified as gay (a tradition extending from Miss Hathaway to Hill Street Blues‘ Lucy Bates) were instead given frown lines and tepidly heterosexual romantic lives. Through nine novels, Kay has dated men so staggeringly devoid of personality that Cornwell can only muster enthusiasm for them when she bumps them off. “Often when we were with each other now, my heart was dull,” our favorite coroner says of her longtime plywood beau Benton Wesley, who is thereafter dispatched in a way that thankfully precludes reconciliation.

In Point of Origin, mild erotic humidity overtakes Scarpetta whenever she locks horns with another strong woman, be she a “slight but vital” psychologist, a “very attractive blond” cop, or a “firm and fit” Fed with great bone structure and compelling gray eyes. In one passage that should startle a number of readers (not least Barbara Bush, this gore-fest’s improbable dedicatee), Kay watches Lucy undress and thinks, “It was as if I had never really noticed her full lips and breasts, and her arms and legs curved and strong like a hunter’s bow…. I felt shamed and confused…. It did not seem so foreign that a woman would want to touch my niece.”

Not that there’s anything wrong, etc. (And if you’re wondering how this all relates to that scandal two years ago, get over it.) I dwell on Point of Origin‘s subtext only because the escaped-killer plot itself is so overworked and predictable, and because (re)defining Kay Scarpetta’s sexuality may give her increasingly gloomy and meandering travails some much needed focus. A character who was initially compelling, well-rounded, and keenly intelligent (Cornwell once said Jodie Foster would be a good Kay, and Kristin Scott Thomas has also been considered for the part) seems depressed and adrift, all charred corpses and no play. Over the years, she’s devolved from making pasta sauce for her niece to spending her spare time boiling the remains of a young woman in a 40-quart cauldron. “It was hard to imagine being reduced to bones cooking in a pot, and the more I thought about it the more depressed I got,” she says, with perhaps more detachment than is called for. “Steam rose in a hot moist vapor…. I envisioned someone thin and tall and blond, someone wearing jeans and lace-up boots.” Let’s hope that in book 10, Kay gets to jump her bones, not braise them. Right now, the character is tired, sad, and utterly lost to herself. She’s the ME nobody knows. C

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