Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
A quarter of a century ago, a reporter turned medical examiner’s office worker by the name of Patricia Cornwell forever changed the face of crime fiction forever with her debut, POSTMORTEM, which introduced Dr Kay Scarpetta, and brought forensics to the fore. Since then, all things forensics, pathology and autopsy have been rich fodder for many, many novelists and TV and film screenwriters who’ve followed in Cornwell’s footsteps. From the CSI craze on television to almost every cop show now having plenty of scenes in the ME or pathologist's office, no matter how action or mystery-focused the rest of the episode may be (eg Hawaii Five-O, Law & Order, etc), forensics and pathology is a key part of crime storytelling now.
Back when I was at high school in the mid 1990s, Patricia Cornwell was one of my favourite authors. I really loved the early Kay Scarpetta tales - after reading one, I quickly got all of them (that were published at the time) out of my high school and local public library and read them; POSTMORTEM, CRUEL & UNUSUAL, ALL THAT REMAINS, THE BODY FARM, BODY OF EVIDENCE, FROM POTTER'S FIELD. I really enjoyed the stories for their intriguing twist-filled plots and the characterisation of Scarpetta and those close to her, as much as the forensic detail. Then I went off to law school and my novel-reading waned. At the same time Cornwell started writing non-Scarpetta books (eg HORNET'S NEST) which just didn't interest me as much. Later I was introduced to the likes of Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux, and Mark Billingham's Tom Thorne, so even when I began reading a lot of novels again, for whatever reason I didn't get back into Scarpetta as much (or James Patterson's Alex Cross, which was another teenage favourite with his early books).
But, as Cornwell shows with RED MIST, her nineteenth Scarpetta tale, she is still capable of leading the way when it comes to forensically-tinged crime stories. This story sees the fearless medical examiner (who's had plenty of changes in her life since I last regularly hung out with her in the mid 1990s) travelling to Savannah, Georgia – a town draped in history and Spanish moss – to meet a high-security prisoner perhaps holding answers about the murder of her troubled deputy. But when Scarpetta is dragged into a long-closed case with many bodies attached, her sojourn to the sweltering South takes a decidedly nasty and life-threatening turn. On a much broader, even global scale. While Cornwell shows her usual touch for weaving intriguing forensics into the plot, once again it is her heroine that is the trump card. A pleasing recent return to first-person narrative allows us to view things through Scarpetta’s eyes, and this along with the tangled plot and interplay in the character relationships shows that Cornwell is back at the top of her game.
I think I just might have to go get my hands on some of the Scarpetta books I missed.
Read more: "Through Scarpetta's eyes" - my feature interview with the somewhat elusive Patricia Cornwell, published in the Sunday Star-Times newspaper in December 2011.