DUST by Patricia Cornwell

This is book number 21 in Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series.

I can’t not read this series. I’d feel like I was missing out on catching up with old friends if I didn’t read the latest release. You know how it goes with old friends: some you run into and wonder how you were ever friends in the first place, others you hope to see more often than you currently do. I’m somewhere in between with Kay Scarpetta and her crew.

From the publisher: Massachusetts Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta has just returned from working one of the worst mass murders in U.S. history when she’s awakened at an early hour by Detective Pete Marino. A body, oddly draped in an unusual cloth, has just been discovered inside the sheltered gates of MIT and it’s suspected the identity is that of missing computer engineer Gail Shipton, last seen the night before at a trendy Cambridge bar. It appears she’s been murdered, mere weeks before the trial of her $100 million lawsuit against her former financial managers, and Scarpetta doubts it’s a coincidence. She also fears the case may have a connection with her computer genius niece, Lucy. At a glance there is no sign of what killed Gail Shipton, but she’s covered with a fine dust that under ultraviolet light fluoresces brilliantly in three vivid colors, what Scarpetta calls a mineral fingerprint. Clearly the body has been posed with chilling premeditation that is symbolic and meant to shock, and Scarpetta has reason to worry that the person responsible is the Capital Murderer, whose most recent sexual homicides have terrorized Washington, D.C. Stunningly, Scarpetta will discover that her FBI profiler husband, Benton Wesley, is convinced that certain people in the government, including his boss, don’t want the killer caught. In Dust, Scarpetta and her colleagues are up against a force far more sinister than a sexual predator who fits the criminal classification of a “spectacle killer.” The murder of Gail Shipton soon leads deep into the dark world of designer drugs, drone technology, organized crime, and shocking corruption at the highest levels. With unparalleled high-tension suspense and the latest in forensic technology, Patricia Cornwell once again proves her exceptional ability to surprise—and to thrill.

It’s not obvious from the description above that Cornwell is trying to do some different things with her writing and this series. There’s the standard gory murder scenes, technical autopsy scenes, and  Scarpetta paranoia scenes. Her crew still vacillates from unease with one another to outright sniping.

Yet readers familiar with the series will see that Cornwell is trying to bring more intimacy into the story. Scarpetta is showing more emotional vulnerability beyond the standard paranoia. Cornwell even places her in her childhood home in Florida for the first time, at a holiday gathering in her narcissistic mother’s house. (I think its a first, unless I’m not remembering scenes from books past.) There’s also a deeper vibe buzzing through some of the old relationships, as if, after twenty years together, some of the harder edges are worn down.

Cornwell has always talked about how she feels the need to live in the world she writes about. So she flies helicopters, scuba dives, watches autopsies, etc. In this book she really brought current events into this story. The school shooting in Newtown, CT is the “one of the worst mass murders” mentioned in the synopsis above. At one point Scarpetta says to her husband,

“A mother has a son with severe developmental problems so she teaches him how to use a damn Bushmaster assault rifle, for God’s Sake?…Then maybe he can massacre an entire elementary school so he feels powerful for a moment before he takes his own life.”

I was surprised, perhaps a little taken aback, to have the tragedy of that shooting used in this way. Yet it makes sense in the world of Scarpetta. And there is a related plot connection with other unstable teenage boys in the story, but still…it made me uncomfortable.

Cornwell also includes her usual nuggets of neat information. This one is a myth-buster regarding putting Vicks up your nose to block out unwanted scents: “Now you’ve just trapped all those molecules of putrefaction inside your nose like flies on flypaper.”

To be honest, I had moments of wanting to throw in the towel while reading this book–I really don’t have the stomach anymore for gruesome details on how someone was murdered and what their injured flesh looks like–but I’m still curious about what Cornwell does with these characters, so I’ll keep an eye out for book #22.

Patricia Cornwell
Putnam, 2013
Source: bought the ebook and read on my Kobo
Recommend to: folks who already read the series. If you haven’t read Cornwell, definitely start at the beginning with Postmortem.

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