Monday, January 28, 2019

Review of Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell (1990, Scribner)

Richmond, Virginia. A serial killer is breaking into houses and strangling young women. Kay Scarpetta, the city’s medical examiner, is determined to try and help end the killer’s spree. Pete Marino, the lead cop on the investigation, prefers honest detective work rather than the theories of a pathologist. And the city’s commissioner and an aggressive investigative journalist seem to be waging their own campaign against her office. Scarpetta is used to making her way in a man’s world and she’s prepared to use all the forensic tricks her office has to try and make sure there’s no next victim. The killer, however, always seems to be one step ahead.

Postmortem is the first book in the Kay Scarpetta series following the investigative exploits of Richmond’s medical examiner. While Scarpetta has a soft underbelly, she is tough, uncompromising and dogged, used to having to fight battles with misogynists. In this outing, everybody seems to be out to besmirch her character and office as she tries to help catch a cunning serial killer who has been strangling a seemingly random set of women. Scarpetta is convinced that the secret to the case lies in forensic evidence. However, DNA is somewhat in its infancy and each scene seems to be compromised in some way. Moreover, her office and potentially herself are seemingly making mistakes. To add to her stresses her niece has come to visit for a couple of weeks. Cornwell spins the plot out, keeping the personal tensions and rivalries, along with the forensic details (which are occasionally overly-laboured), to the fore. The story is relatively linear, with few surprises and only a couple of twists and turns, and the denouement is somewhat inevitable. Nonetheless, it’s an engaging story held together by inter-personal rivalries, rather than the mystery of the killer’s identity.

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