Just the Facts, Ma’am
If you’re a techie, you’ll love The Scarpetta Factor, by Patricia Cornwell. If you’re a technophobe, not so much. The book is one of a series of 17 novels based on Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a forensic pathologist.
Aside from your technological orientation, you should have an affinity for intrigue and complex plots that jerk you all over the place. And then there are the characters – enough to populate the chorus in Verdi’s Nabucco. Nobody sang in this police investigation – except for the one in that mysterious singing Christmas card delivered to psychiatrist Benton Wesley, Scarpetta’s husband.
I’d never read anything by Patricia Cornwell, and was curious enough about her to buy the 2009 novel at a library sale. I had no idea I was entering a dark thicket so entangled that the shrubbery had me scratching my head repeatedly. It was the most intricate series of interwoven events, connected characters and technical complexities that I have ever read.
Murder, She Wrote
The setting is New York City, and the plot centers on the back-to-back murders of two women. CNN employs Scarpetta as its forensic analyst. She doesn’t want to discuss the two murders, which are under investigation, but is pulled into it by the unprincipled anchor Carley Crispin. After that broadcast, she returns to the apartment of her and husband, and discovers that a package was dropped off at the front desk. It has a peculiar odor, and she doesn’t open it, but has the police bomb squad cart it away.
Was there a connection between the card, sent by a former patient of Benton’s named Dodie Hodge, and the package?
Then there’s Lucy, a forensic computer expert and Scarpetta’s niece, who becomes part of the investigation along with her love interest, Jaime Berger, a New York assistant district attorney. Lucy has been involved with Bobby Fuller and his girlfriend, Hannah Star, in some way that is only hinted at, but it produces a rift between Lucy and Jaime. Not much later, Hannah Star is missing, and finally presumed dead.
Soon after that, a young woman named Tony Darien is found murdered in Central Park, where she had gone jogging. But was that where she was killed? Is there a connection between that murder and the Star disappearance?
As events unfold, more characters are introduced and the plot, as they say, thickens. The key characters are adequately portrayed, though nuance is less than notable – which is standard for thrillers, in which events are the salient feature. Those events occur in a short time span, the days leading up to Christmas 2008, remarkable for a book of 492 pages.
Tying characters and the labyrinthine plot together is a challenge requiring a lot of concentration in a book that is not easy reading. But if you like to solve crossword puzzles, the Rubik’s Cube and jigsaw puzzles, The Scarpetta Factor may be right up your alley, which for me led in a couple of instances to dead ends. And for you epicures, the book even has a few culinary references, since Cornwell authored two cookbooks.
Cops and Robotics
The provenance of Cornwell’s formidable knowledge of police operations, forensic pathology, and technology was a stint as a police reporter with the Charlotte Observer, which she left to join the medical examiner’s office. Research for her books has included study of space, technology, robotics, and law enforcement and security techniques with institutions including the Secret Service, NASA’s Langley Research Center, the U.S. Air Force, Scotland Yard and Interpol.
This abundant experience is evident in technological passages throughout the book, such as: “A battery pack was attached to a strap that Scarpetta slipped over her shoulder, and she tucked the S-rod close to her side and maneuvered the nose over her sample in the petri dish. The LABRADOR responded with an illuminated bar graph on the control console and an audio signal, what sounded like synthesized strums on a harp, a harmonic pattern of tones distinctive for hexane. The e-nose was happy. It had alerted on an alkane hydrocarbon, a simple solvent …”
While too involved for the average reader to appreciate, these arcane details lend vivid realism to the story, rendering it readily believable.
And they display the brilliance of the author.