“Palindrome” by Stuart Woods

Woods, Stuart. Palindrome (1991)  
Harper, 447 pages, $5.99 paperback  
ISBN  0 06 109936 8

A woman staggers into a hospital emergency room so badly beaten she’s unrecognizable.  The patient is Liz Barwick, professional photographer and wife of pro football player Baker Ramsey.  After receiving a hefty divorce settlement from Ramsey and an additional settlement from his team, Barwick retreats to Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia, to recuperate physically and emotionally.  The reconstructive surgery necessary after the beating Ramsey gave her has changed her appearance, and she hopes to begin a new life to go along with her new face on Cumberland Island.

The island is presided over by ninety-one-year-old Angus Drummond, whose family has owned and run it for generations.  Now Angus wonders who will take his place. His own descendants are scattered around the U.S., and none seems interested in living permanently on Cumberland Island and managing its affairs. While the old man worries about what will happen to his island, people who knew Liz back in Atlanta begin to die.

The book’s title refers to Angus Drummond’s identical twin grandsons, Hamish and Keir. (A palindrome is a statement that reads the same both forward and backward.) The boys were very close as young children, but the year they turned eighteen something (nobody knows what) happened between them. They have not spoken to each other since that time, and each refuses to visit his grandfather—usually even to be present on the island—at the same time as the other. Liz Barwick begins an affair with Keir.

The book’s mystery lies in the history of the Drummond family, while Baker Ramsey’s pursuit of his former wife heightens the suspense. Woods weaves these two threads together in a confrontation scene played out, in typical melodramatic fashion, during a raging storm on the island.  But despite the melodramatic ending, this is an engrossing novel of mystery, suspense, and human psychology.

Palindrome was nominated for an Edgar Award.

© 1997 by Mary Daniels Brown

“Hornet’s Nest” by Patricia Cornwell

Cornwell, Patricia. Hornet’s Nest (1996)  
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 377 pages, $25.95 hardcover  
ISBN 0 399 14228 2

I hoped that a break from Dr. Scarpetta might rejuvenate Patricia Cornwell’s writing. It didn’t. This is among the worst novels I’ve ever read. Most books this poorly written would end up in some editor’s wastebasket.

The kindest thing that can be said about this book is that it lacks focus. It’s impossible to sum up Hornet’s Nest in a sentence or two.

First, there’s no central character. Near the beginning, the novel looks as if it’s going to focus on Andy Brazil, a volunteer police officer and rookie newspaper reporter who wants to cover the police beat. But after introducing Brazil, the novel shifts to Deputy Police Chief Virginia West. Then, about half way through, the emphasis shifts again, this time to Police Chief Judy Hammer. Most of the second half of the book covers Hammer’s relationship with her husband. The paths of these three characters cross superficially throughout, but it’s never clear exactly whose story we’re reading.

Second, because there’s no single main character, there’s also no plot focus. Brazil, West, and Hammer all have their own separate stories. Initially it looks as if the pursuit of a vicious serial killer will provide the focus, but that aspect of the action soon disappears except for a nominal reappearance at the end.  

Another troublesome aspect of this novel is the stereotyped characters it presents: the Jewish banker who, behind the scenes, wields the true political power in the city; the mayor, a good ol’ boy who wants to hush up the killings because they’re bad for business and tourism; and Hammer and West, two highly successful women professionals whose personal lives are in shambles.

And then there’s West’s cat, Niles, who’s not a typical cat at all. Niles receives psychic messages from the flashing red light atop the bank building, and drags a five-dollar bill and a pair of wet panties from the dryer to give West the message “money laundering.”

It’s difficult to figure out what Cornwell was trying to do with this novel. Perhaps it’s the introduction of a new series; that would explain its open-endedness. But as a self-contained novel, it fails miserably.

© 1997 by Mary Daniels Brown

“Under the Lake” by Stuart Woods

Woods, Stuart. Under the Lake (1987)  
Avon, $6.50  paperback 
ISBN  0 30 70519 2

In this excellent supernatural thriller, John Howell, former newspaper reporter and recipient of the Nobel Prize, is approaching 40.  Having burned out on newspaper work, he is now supposedly working on The Great American Novel;  actually, he spends his days getting drunk and staring at a blank page in his workroom over the garage.  When chicken king Lurton Pitts, intending a run for the Presidency, offers Howell $60,000 to ghost write his autobiography over the next three months, Howell grudgingly accepts.  His brother-in-law Denham White offers him the use of his cabin at a lake in the mountains of northern Georgia.

Once Howell arrives at the cabin on the shores of the man-made lake in Sutherland, Georgia, he begins to have visions of a young girl.  With the help of a female undercover investigative reporter named Scotty, Howell sets out to discover who the young girl in his vision is and why she keeps appearing.  

© 1997 by Mary Daniels Brown

“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

“From Potter’s Field” by Patricia Cornwell

Cornwell, Patricia. From Potter’s Field  (1995)  
Scribner, 412 pages, $24.00 hardcover  
ISBN 0-684-19598-4

In the few days surrounding Christmas, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Pete Marino (now a police captain), and FBI agent Benton Wesley pursue Temple Gault, a serial killer who has appeared in earlier Scarpetta novels. Scarpetta’s niece, computer whiz Lucy, now age 21 and soon to graduate from the University of Virginia, is still working on the FBI’s computerized project CAIN (Criminal Apprehension Information Network), which Gault has apparently broken into. 

Dr. Scarpetta does little but whine in this book.  She begins by bemoaning how terrible her job in general is since she always has to deal with dead people who’ve been victimized by various monsters; she gets more strident as the police tighten security around her when they suspect Gault is closing in on her and Lucy.  At one point Marino insists on staying at her house so she won’t be there alone.  (Kay, of course, will not heed his warnings that she should stay somewhere else until Gault is captured.)  At about 5:00 a.m. she sneaks out to an all-night grocery store.  When she returns Marino screams at her about the chance she’s just taken and orders her to get into the house.  She screams back, “This is my house.  Not your house. . . . This, goddam it, is my house. And I will get in it when I please” (p. 293).  Marino (bless his heart) snaps back, “Good. And you can die in it just like you can die anywhere else.”

Scarpetta is hardening into a mean-spirited, alienated person with a gigantic chip on her shoulder. Since much of her isolation and misery seem self-induced, it’s getting harder and harder to care about her. The book ends on an ominously cold note, with Scarpetta standing over a dying man on the New York City subway tracks saying, “A train was coming and I did not move him free of the tracks. I walked away and did not look back”  (p. 411).

© 1997 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Best Books I Read in 1996

Listed alphabetically by author

Burke, James Lee. Black Cherry Blues

Irving, John. A Prayer for Owen Meany

Margolin, Phillip. The Last Innocent Man

O’Brien, Tim. In the Lake of the Woods

O’Connell, Carol. Mallory’s Oracle

Sandford, John. “Prey” series (I admit this is cheating since it’s more than one book)

Shields, Carol. The Stone Diaries

Smith, Sarah. The Vanished Child

Westlake, Donald E. Smoke

Woods, Stuart. Choke


Honorable Mention

Coben, Harlan. Fade Away

Dobyns, Stephen. Saratoga Bestiary

Dunning, John. Booked to Die

Muller, Marcia. Ask the Cards a Question