“Cause of Death” by Patricia Cornwell

Cornwell, Patricia. Cause of Death (1996)  
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 340 pages, $25.95 hardcover  
ISBN 0 399 14146 4

This book opens with a powerful image:  “On the last morning of Virginia’s bloodiest year since the Civil War, I built a fire and sat facing a window of darkness where at sunrise I knew I would find the sea” (p. 1).  Particularly in view of the bleak ending of the previous novel (From Potter’s Field), one hopes the new year and sunrise over the sea may bring light and a ray of new hope to Dr. Kay Scarpetta.

Alas, it is not to be. Scarpetta is still brittle, adversarial, reclusive, and self-righteously self-absorbed.  In the opening scene she reflects on the problems of being a woman medical examiner as she verbally jockeys for position with the local police and the Navy over who has the right to oversee removal of a corpse.  Later she describes her new house in Richmond: 

My stone house was set back from the street on a bluff that overlooked a rocky bend in the James River, the wooded lot surrounded by a wrought iron fence neighboring children could not squeeze through. I knew no one on any side of me, and had no intention of changing that. (p. 93)

Kay speaks smugly about her predecessor as Chief Medical Examiner, who was a Southern good ol’ boy:  “I did not think the former chief would like his office now, for it was nonsmoking, and disrespect and sophomoric behavior were left outside the door” (p. 138).  But most disturbing is her dismissive attitude toward Marino, her colleague and protector: “Marino was very displeased because he was overly protective” (p. 8) and “Marino wanted to talk.  He did not want to be with the guys or alone.  He wanted to be with me, but he would never admit that.  In all the years I had known him, his feelings for me were a confession he could not make, no matter how obvious they might be” (p. 53).

Scarpetta exhibits more compassion and concern toward the corpses she examines than she does toward Marino here.

But worse than the deterioration of Scarpetta’s character is the decline of Cornwell’s writing skills. In this novel Cornwell resorts to thriller techniques (terrorists taking hostages inside a nuclear power plant) instead of character development and the interweaving of plot and character. Near the end of the book, Scarpetta, inside the nuclear plant with the terrorists and trying to bluff for time, tells their leader, “`You don’t know.’  I showed no emotion because I had accepted this was the day I would die, and I was not afraid of it” (p. 334). The reader has absolutely no idea where this bravado (fearlessness? foolishness?) has come from. Finally, the novel ends much too abruptly, as though the author has either run out of steam or reached the required number of pages.

© 1997 by Mary Daniels Brown

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