Port Mortuary by Patricia Cornwell

Port Mortuary
Patricia Cornwell
Penguin Putnam, November 30, 2010
512 pages
Source: review copy

Patricia Cornwell is the only writer who has gotten me out of bed during a late night reading frenzy to double check that the doors and windows are locked.

She’s also one of the few writers whose release dates I track for new books and I usually buy them on the lay down date.  This time around I was happy to get an early review copy.

I’m also thrilled that she’s coming to Chicago!  She’ll be at the Borders in Oak Brook, IL on Thursday, 12/3/10, at 7pm.  Please call the store for the latest details: 630-574-0800. [Disclosure: I work there part-time.]

I’ve been reading Cornwell since the late 1990s when I first started getting into mystery novels and her characters–Kay Scarpetta, Pete Marino, Lucy Farinelli, and Benton Wesely–are like old friends to me.  Her first novel, Postmortem (1991) is still, I believe, the only novel to win the Edgar, Creasey, Anthony and Macavity Awards as well as the French Prix du Roman d’Adventure in a single year.  She has been credited with starting the whole CSI craze due to her meticulous and engaging incorporation of the latest forensic investigative techniques and technology in her Scarpetta novels.

When I first started reading the Scarpetta novels I lived in Charlotte, NC where Cornwell is considered a bit of a home girl because she was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer and went to college up the road at Davidson. 

Port Mortuary takes Kay Scarpetta in a fresh new direction, but the novel is a bit slow on action.  The book, however, never dragged for me.  I just realized at one point that I was still reading about Scarpetta thinking after X number of pages.  I won’t go so far as to say I am disappointed with this novel, but it wasn’t the action packed thriller that I was anticipating.  Port Mortuary started strong, but I think it got a little bogged down in Scarpetta’s internal musings.  I would’ve preferred to see Scarpetta engage in more action and to see more interaction between the main characters, but that’s not the book Cornwell wrote.  And I know she has her reasons.

I’m looking at this novel as setting up lots of potential thrills going forward.  Scarpetta certainly learns a lot about herself in this story and tensions are set up between the characters and various organizations for future harvesting.  I know Cornwell fans will enjoy the novel and the new direction it is taking Scarpetta.  Actually, the more I write about this novel the more fascinating it seems.  I can’t wait to talk with people who’ve read it to compare notes.

In this entry in the series we learn of Scarpetta’s early work with the Air Force to pay off her medical school loans before she started her professional career.  There’s also a dark secret that’s been haunting her and which she’s been hiding since the Reagan years.  Scarpetta has been appointed chief of the new state of the art Cambridge Forensic Center in Massachusetts which is a joint venture between state and national government (including the military), MIT, and Harvard.  However, she’s been away at Dover Air Force Base practically since the new facility opened participating in an internship to learn how to conduct virtual autopsies using CT-assisted technology.

The four month internship has dragged on into six months and all is not well back home at the Cambridge Forensic Center where Scarpetta left Jack Fielding in charge.  But Scarpetta doesn’t know that all is not well.  She’s been cocooned working long hours at Dover.  And no one is really telling her anything these days.  Then, a young man drops dead near Scarpetta’s house in Cambridge.  His body is taken to the Cambridge Forensic Center where his body starts to bleed in the cooler overnight.  Anyone whose read Cornwell knows that dead bodies don’t bleed, which means the man may have been put in the cooler while he was still alive.  Scarpetta’s reputation is on the line.  She may not have been there, but she’s in charge and while she’s been away standards have slipped and her second in command, Jack Fielding, has disappeared.  Pete Marino and Lucy Farinelli helicopter in to Dover to take Scarpetta home to Cambridge.  General Briggs, Scarpetta’s commanding officer at Dover and the only one who knows about her earlier, dark secret, seems to want to interfere with her domain.  All of this, along with a few other things, makes Scarpetta a little paranoid, which sets up her internal musings.  The story takes off from there.

Cornwell delivers more of her trademark incorporation of the latest techniques and technology in crime scene investigation–virtual autopsies and various nano technologies–all the while maintaining a deep sense of respect for the victim’s of crime as well as other living creatures.  Excuse me one cryptic remark, but going forward I’ll be looking a little closer at flies on the wall after having read this novel.

Diehard Cornwell fans will no doubt pick-up Port Mortuary asap and, as always, it’ll be like reconnecting with old friends.

Visit Cornewll’s website here.  She’s also been very active and entertaining for her fans on Twitter and Facebook.

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