Reading The Scarpetta Factor, Patricia Cornwell’s 17th novel about medical examiner Kay Scarpetta and her gang of detectives and forensic criminologists, is not unlike taking a 500-page romp on a Tilt-a-Whirl.
Diehard Cornwell fans already know the drill, but for the uninitiated: Expect plot twists to snowball at a rate of tricky-to-solve murders, bomb threats and mistaken identities popping up every few pages (with some mafia involvement thrown in, too). In other words, there’s no predicting what will happen to Scarpetta over the course of the novel. The plot loops, spins and changes directions until the very end.
In this installment, Scarpetta is working in New York City to crack the murders of high profile financial advisor Hannah Starr and beautiful waitress Toni Darien—all while serving as senior forensic analyst for CNN’s (fictitious) “The Crispin Report.” Her husband, forensic psychiatrist Benton Wesley, is caught up in the case of a patient who may (or may not) be connected to Scarpetta’s murders. Rounding out the crew are NYPD detective Pete Marino, who shares a sticky past with Scarpetta, and Lucy Farinelli, Scarpetta’s computer investigator niece.
Scarpetta is serious about her work. “The body doesn’t lie,” she thinks during an argument about the timeline of a murder. “Don’t try to force the evidence to fit the crime.” When the crime starts to directly involve Scarpetta—a mysterious package shows up at her apartment; Lucy’s past involves some dangerous liaisons—the plot gets complicated as we fear for our heroine’s life.
Although Cornwell’s prose can be corny and over-dramatic (“She was volatile, couldn’t settle down, and she hated it, but hating something didn’t make it go away . . .”), The Scarpetta Factor is still a rip-roaring read, in no small part because of explicit details and forensic jargon (perhaps aided by Cornwell’s six years as a writer and computer analyst at Chief Medical Examiner’s office in Richmond, Virginia).
The point of view alternates between the main characters. Because of these shifts and the multiple details to resolve, the plot can drag; just when we think we’ll get some resolution—bam!—the narrator changes and 200 pages later we’re still wondering what’s going to happen.
Although frustrating, this technique keeps us hooked and biting nails until the end, the objective of any good crime novel.
In her childhood, Eliza Borné read a Nancy Drew book a day. She can whip through a “Scarpetta” book in about the same amount of time.