Decoded, in a trace

Over the last 15 years, Kay Scarpetta has sawed into innumerable skulls, tangled with intestine-chomping nasties and survived murderous attacks by suicidal helicopters and lethal chip hammers. So knocking The Da Vinci Code off the number one spot is easy-peasy—the sort of task this tough blonde might undertake during a massage-and-meditation weekend.
For those not into gore and gristle, Dr Scarpetta is a fictional forensic examiner who, in the course of 13 violent bestsellers, peers at spleens and murder scenes—and usually stumbles upon a fibre or abrasion which serves as the vital clue. Trace, the latest in this series, suddenly hit the headlines when its international sales figures outstripped those of The Da Vinci Code last week. Which seems to indicate that the only subject that can compete with Vatican conspiracies is gruesome autopsies.
The brain behind the forensic phenomenon is Patricia Cornwell, a former crime reporter who spent six years working in the Virginia Chief Medical Examiner’s Office where she occasionally assisted on autopsies. While her first three novels were rejected outright, an imaginative publisher suggested that Cornwell dump her generic male detective and focus on the female pathologist who had hitherto been assigned a bit role. The 40-year-old Kay Scarpetta made a splashy entry in Postmortem where, as Chief Medical Examiner for Virginia, she helped investigate a spate of monstrous murders. The book bagged a clutch of awards and placed Cornwell firmly on the path to bestsellerdom and $24-million-for-three-books contracts. The success of Scarpetta also spawned a conference of fictional female pathologists who, like the rather self-important prototype, blather endlessly about “helping the dead to speak”.
Unlike the cosy whodunits favoured by the British, the Americans have always preferred psychopaths, mutilated corpses and chilling endings. The early Kay Scarpetta novels may not have been pretty—after all, no investigation conducted to the sound of a saw slicing human bone and tweezers picking at dead skin can be pleasant—but they were great reads with intelligent plots. In Cruel and Unusual, for example, the fingerprints found on a new murder scene mystifyingly matched those of a man already executed in Virginia’s electric chair.

Regrettably, however, Scarpetta has today gone the way of over-flogged investigators. In recent books she has become more walking target than doctor-detective, with every psychopath in the US involving her in tedious cat-and-mouse games that place her at “mortal risk”. She’s lost her job, her spunk and her sense of humour—the abiding mystery is that she hasn’t lost her readers.

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