The Body Farm, by Patricia Cornwell

Cornwell seems to be a popular mystery author with a long-running series featuring Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a forensic pathologist who also has a law degree. I like a good mystery, so I thought I’d check her out. I first tried Isle of Dogs which is not one of her Kay Scarpetta books. I guess it was supposed to be humorous, but I found it boring and abandoned it after a couple of chapters.

Then I tried this book. Here, Dr. Scarpetta (she’s not the kind of character you call Kay) goes to Black Mountain, North Carolina, to investigate the sexual assault and murder of Emily Steiner, an 11-year-old girl. Black Mountain is said to be near Asheville, touted by Eric Weiner in The Geography of Bliss and ABC’s 20/20 as the happiest place in the U.S. Cornwell does not do much with this contrast other than occasionally mentioning that people in a small town believe the crimes they see on tv happen elsewhere and will never affect their town.

Complicating Scarpetta’s investigation are her relations with two co-workers: Pete Marino, a detective from Richmond, VA, and FBI Unit Chief Benton Wesley. Emotional undercurrents that had apparently been explored more fully in earlier books made the opening chapters of this book somewhat baffling for me. Scarpetta’s niece Lucy also complicates the story. Taking her aunt as a role model, Lucy has been working on a classified project at Quantico but lands in emotional and professional problems which may or may not be related to the case in North Carolina.

The investigation initially focuses on Temple Gault, a serial murderer whom Scarpetta has encountered in the past. Apparently assuming that readers would be familiar with the earlier books, Cornwell provides only the briefest outline of their earlier interaction. Similarly, Marino and Wesley are barely sketched in and did not come alive for me. Lucy is characterized a little better, as are Lucy’s mother and grandmother. I would have said that Scarpetta’s sister and mother are drawn too broadly to be realistic had I not had similar conversations with my own mother and one of my sisters. Still, there is little subtlety or shading in any of these characters.

The hardest part of writing a series must be deciding how much to explain what has happened in past books and when to present it. Here, not enough information was given at the right time, for me anyway. Yet, such explanations can be overdone. I had to give up reading Martha Grimes’s books because I got tired of the arm sticking out of the rubble memory. The best examples of weaving in earlier information that I’ve read are the Harry Potter books. One could also choose to make the books of a series stand alone a bit more, keeping the amount of necessary earlier information to a minimum, as P. D. James does. Another difficult factor in writing a series is the progression of the characters’ lives. I have sometimes found that reading books out of order has meant that I already know important plot points in the earlier books when I get to them.

Back to Cornwell’s book, if the setting and characterization are not detailed enough, the plot is almost too complex, with many different subplots and much traveling back and forth between more than half a dozen East Coast towns and cities. Some promising plot threads are dropped with perhaps only a sentence to tie them off at the end. The identity and motivation of the murderer seemed obvious to me early on but I was willing to play along with the red herrings. The forensic detail is interesting, as are the descriptions of the FBI research projects. As always, these are only my opinions, and while I probably will not seek out any more of Cornwell’s books, I’m sure many others will.

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