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A new Kate Scarpetta novel is always highly anticipated by devotees of lesbian detective fiction. Patricia Cornwell has been much in the news these days, and not just because of her new novel, The Bone Bed (Putnam), the 20th in her Kay Scarpetta series and her 30th book.
Cornwell has sold more than 100 million copies of her books. Enough for one in three Americans to have one in hand. Contemplate that for a brief moment: 100 million people reading a lesbian writer. Cornwell’s the wealthiest lesbian writer in the world. Even if I didn’t like Scarpetta, I would love that.
But there has been more than one mystery churning in Cornwell’s life. On February 19 a Boston jury awarded Cornwell $50.9 million, settling a years-long lawsuit against her previous management firm, Anchin, Block & Anchin. Cornwell had hired the firm in 2004 at the pricey sum of $40,000 per month to maintain her finances.
In 2009 she discovered she was missing tens of millions. Where did the money go?
The short version is, into the pocket of the guy supposed to be managing her money. Because Cornwell herself was having some bi-polar issues and those can lead pretty directly to the poorhouse, she wanted someone else in charge, she wanted someone taking note of what she was spending and what she was spending it on. Alas, no one was watching what her money manager was spending of hers.
Cornwell gave Katie Couric an exclusive and came on the show in leather talking about the lawsuit, her bi-polar disorder, her wife (Harvard neuroscientist Staci Gruber) and Scarpetta. It was a bracing hour which you can watch at katiecouric.com or ABCnews.com.
Cornwell is a fascinating character herself and knowing just this much more about her makes reading her work all the more enticing.
And enticing is the right word for her latest novel. The Bone Bed takes Dr. Kay Scarpetta on a journey she has not previously taken–she goes back to her roots as a forensic specialist and as the independent, solo actor in her own life. Scarpetta hasn’t been gone, but with The Bone Bed, it feels like the real Scarpetta is back, with a vengeance.
In many ways Scarpetta parallels Cornwell (even though she’s based on the former Virginia chief M.E., Marcella Fierro): Scarpetta’s getting older, but she’s still hot, she dresses hot, she’s Italian, but blonde and she’s, well, hot. And in charge. Scarpetta is always in charge.
There’s also Scarpetta’s lesbian niece, Lucy Farinelli, who has a genius IQ which she parlayed into a multi-million-dollar business. She’s a gazillionaire with a penchant for big machines. So Cornwell is part Farinelli as well. (Cornwell is known for having her own helicopters and planes.)
But The Bone Bed finds Scarpetta in a kind of paranoid malaise. As she delves into her latest case–cases–she feels she can’t trust anyone–not her lead investigator, Pete Marino, not her husband, Benton Wesley and not her niece, Lucy. She feels isolated, alone and surrounded by danger.
Which she is.
As the book opens, Scarpetta has been sent a huge email file of a video of a dinosaur dig in Alberta, Canada where paleontologist Emma Schubert has disappeared.
The opening description in the prologue is beautiful and spare as Cornwell takes us into the last days of a dinosaur herd. And then the mystery begins to unfold. An ear–likely Schubert’s–is at the center of the mystery. The ear is severed, “devoid of hair” and has a piercing in the center. It is displayed on a copy of the Grande Prairie Daily Herald-Tribune and from it Scarpetta is supposed to deduce…something.
But before she can do so, there are other pressing events to deal with. She must testify in court about a previous case. But before that can happen, there’s an even more pressing matter: the body of a woman has been found in Boston Harbor. Wrapped up with an endangered leatherback turtle who must be carefully, delicately cut from the corpse.
All the while the clock is ticking: on the turtle, the body from the harbor which will begin to fall apart like an overcooked chicken as it moves from the icy waters to the warm mortuary and of course, the rest of Emma Schubert, if that is indeed her ear.
I admit, I left Scarpetta some years ago. I tired of the focus on forensics and what felt to me like shallow, phoned-in plots with not a lot of characterization. I still really liked Scarpetta as a character as well as Lucy, Pete and Benton, but it just felt wearing to read those novels.
Well, something has snapped back into place for Cornwell, because The Bone Bed harkens back to the best of Scarpetta–there’s a vulnerability to her in this novel that female readers especially will identify with because of what she’s contemplating in her musings. Plus, the return to first-person narrative helps pull the reader in and propels us forward. That first-person narration also softens the at-times overload of forensics, because it is Dr. Scarpetta who is narrating those, not some bored omniscience from above. The reader feels the commitment and the passion she feels for her work.
“Her organs are decomposed. Her lungs are collapsed, reddish-purple and very soft, the airways devoid of water, froth, sand, or foreign material, the gallbladder dry and wrinkled with no residual bile. With each minute we work it becomes abundantly clear that this is an autopsy of exclusion, of ruling out possible causes of death and leaving little doubt that she either asphyxiated or was poisoned. But it will be a while–days at least–before we have a complete ethanol and drug screen of liver tissue.”
Scarpetta goes on to weigh the gastric contents, to order special stains, to detail the contents of the stomach and intestines. This is the cataloging of what is left of a life and at the end as Scarpetta rips off her gloves and booties and tosses them in the bio-hazard can she explains that she can’t say what caused the woman’s death, only what did not.
The scene, about five pages long, mid-novel, points out the frustration of solving a murder mystery: it should be there, it should be explanatory, the answer should be revealed and yet: no. Maddeningly, everything is revealed in bits and pieces. Most especially whodunit. Science is there, but science doesn’t have all the answers.
Cornwell expresses Scarpetta’s unsettled feelings about her life and her relationships with a frankness and openness that has been missing in the last few books. Readers will remember the best of Scarpetta–The Last Precinct comes to mind–and revel in the return of that forensic scientist and that woman in The Bone Bed.
Watching Cornwell weave these separate cases together, watching as Scarpetta reveals parts of herself as well as the parts of the victims definitely makes this read worthwhile. It’s a hefty book–500 pages–but it’s compelling, even as one tries to discern before Scarpetta who has done what and why–and if Benton and Lucy are somehow shifting their roles in Kay’s life.
For fans of the series, but for newcomers as well: Cornwell backtracks just enough in the first few chapters so that those unfamiliar with who Scarpetta is will be on solid ground.
The Bone Bed
by Patricia Cornwell
Hardcover, 9780399157561, 480 pp.