What happened to Patricia Cornwell?

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Back in the early 1990s, I was among the many readers who enjoyed Patricia Cornwell’s prize-winning and best-selling novels about Richmond. Va., medical examiner Kay Scarpetta.

The series was launched with “Postmortem” which won virtually every honor that is given to crime fiction in this country. The prizes were fully earned because Cornwell broke new ground while telling a thrilling story.

Taking the female detective novel — which had been opened up as a new genre by Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky in the previous decade — Cornwell added what was then the new turf of forensics.

The first few novels were exciting, creepy and enlightening.

Scarpetta was a smart, compassionate heroine with interesting characters around her — a troubled young niece who was becoming a computer whiz; a bigshot at the FBI who drew closer to Scarpetta in each book; and a funky Richmond cop who was the polar opposite of the FBI agent but who became a close friend and ally of Scarpetta’s.

Then, five or six books in, Cornwell began to lose her way, indulging in dreary soap opera antics involving her regular cast of characters and failing to come up with mysteries as strong as the ones in the first few novels (a couple of the early plots were fictionalizations of notorious Virginia crimes).

Like so many other readers of crime series fiction, it was hard for me to shake my Cornwell habit even as the books deteriorated — Scarpetta was like an old friend and who abandons their old friends during hard times?

Then, Cornwell did something so misguided that it killed my interest in the books — she had Kay’s FBI lover murdered, put our heroine through an emotional wringer, and then revealed in a later novel that the guy wasn’t really dead (and that people close to Kay were in on the hoax).

Yes, Cornwell later tried to work her way out of the corner she had backed herself into, by explaining that the hoax was for Kay’s own good because it might have saved her life, etc. etc.

To me, the death reversal seemed like a case of a novelist who knew she had made a terrible mistake then trying to foist a shoddy daytime TV drama device on her loyal readers. (It’s called anything-for-a-shock and making-it-up-as-I-go-along).

Ironically, as the books declined in quality, their sales figures soared thanks to good marketing, die-hard fans, and the sudden explosion in interest in DNA and forensics thanks to the O.J. trial and the CBS “C.S.I” franchise.

Last week, the forthcoming Cornwell novel, “The Scarpetta Factor” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), landed on my desk and I decided to give a once-favorite writer another read.

Lots of water had gone under the bridge — Scarpetta has relocated to New York City and married her once-dead FBI lover — so why not give the popular series another shot on an Amtrak ride to Philly over the weekend?

It is sad to report that “The Scarpetta Factor” is a dud — nothing in the book is as horrifying as Cornwell’s flat prose or the fact that she has produced a 492-page novel with about 100 pages’ worth of plot.cornwell2

Cornwell is still stuck in the worst soap opera aspects of the series — neurotic niece Lucy’s paranoia and her inability to sustain romantic relationships; Kay’s husband Benton Wesley is still mired in regret over the fake-death stunt he pulled on his beloved; and the scuzzy cop Marino (transferred to the NYPD) is still carrying a torch for Kay.

The most distressing part of the novel is the characterization of Kay, who seems to have been replaced by one of the pod people from “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” — there is something eerily inhuman about her behavior and her dialogue now.

Here’s Kay talking during a stunningly dull sequence that comes in the final 70 pages of the story (when, theoretically, a thriller should be heating up rather than cooling down):

“‘I don’t see how that’s possible,’ Scarpetta said. ‘Where’s the sensor? You can’t measure pulse oximetry, the oxygen saturation of blood, without a sensor of some type. Usually on a fingertip, sometimes a toe, sometimes an earlobe. Has to be a thin part of the person’s anatomy so a light can pass through the tissue. A light comprised of both red and infrared wavelengths that determines the oxygenation, the percentage of oxygen saturation, in your blood.’”

Two pages later, in a separate meeting about the two murders that trigger the plot, here’s Kay’s husband talking about suspect number one: “It’s possible the gene Jean-Baptiste inherited traces back to a man in the mid-fifteen hundreds who was born covered with hair and as an infant was presented to King Henri the Second in Paris and raised in the royal palace as a curiosity, an amusement, a pet of sorts. This man married a French woman, and several of their children inherited the disorder. In the late eighteen hundreds, one of their descendants is believed to have married a Chandonne, and a hundred years later the recessive gene became dominant in the form of Jean-Baptiste.”

Who talks like this?

The HAL 9000 computer in “2001” had more warmth and humanity.