Kay Scarpetta, Chief Medical Examiner for the City of Richmond, State of Virginia. Armed with scalpel and saw, Scarpetta examines the remains of the recently deceased to determine the nature of their demise. So just what would you expect to find on Scarpetta's Winter Table? A beautiful adulteress dispatched to her eternal reward by a jealous husband? A teenage boy riddled with bullets, the result of a drug deal gone bad? Wrong, bucko. Try pasta primavera, holiday pizza, eggnog, and key lime pie. For we speak not of Scarpetta's examining table, but her dinner table, where, in a Bizzarro version of Home for the Holidays, Scarpetta and her entourage gather to embrace the Christmas spirit (and spirits).

The evening's menu starts with Phil Marino's "Cause of Death" eggnog. (Marino, as aficionados will remember, is Scarpetta's wise-cracking police captain friend, whose t-shirt-straining girth is mentioned at least once per book.) Marino's eggnog is a heady concoction, substituting "corn likker" moonshine for more mundane inebriants such as rum or brandy.

As the evening progresses, we are treated to one and then another of the dishes to which Scarpetta refers in passing in earlier Cornwell novels: her famous hearty stew, last-minute quick and dirty chili, mouthwatering homebaked cookies, made-from-scratch pizza, spicy Bloody Marys, and more. Between recipes, the events of the evening (and several successive evenings) unfold, and we are given an inside look at the workings of Scarpetta's quirky extended family.

There is not a story here, per se, certainly not the thriller that frequent Cornwell readers have come to expect, but there is a wealth of background information for the Scarpettaphile, and the recipes -- oh, those recipes. The holiday pizza and Lucy's felonious cookies are over-the-top wonderful.

Part Murder She Wrote, part Like Water for Chocolate, Scarpetta's Winter Table proves beyond a doubt that Patricia Cornwell can whip up a meringue or a mystery with equal flair.


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