Book of the Dead by Patricia Cornwell

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Book of the Dead by Patricia Cornwell

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Detailed forensics are called on when the death of a young American in Rome appears to have similarities with killings in South Carolina. Meanwhile, Kay Scarpetta's tightly knit team of allies and helpers seems to be falling apart.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: October 2007
Publisher: Little, Brown
ISBN: 978-0316724234

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Scarpetta is not so much 'back' in the latest novel by Patricia Cornwell, as is seen to 'have moved on'. On the basis of Book of the Dead, I'm prepared to say it's time that Cornwell lets her do so.

Following her last outing in 2005's Predator, Scarpetta has moved South and out of official investigative work. Now ensconced in Charleston, South Carolina - a historic beach town with a strange sense of community - where she has set up as a private forensic pathologist. She's brought along her long-term support-team: lab-technician-cum-investigator, ex-cop Pete Marino, secretary Rose, and the lead-in to all sorts of unscrupulous computer wizardry via niece Lucy. Long-term lover Benton is still working the official line up in Florida.

Rome: in a sunken bathtub in a wonderful villa a slow torture scene leads us into this particular story. A terrified victim. A killer enjoying every second of it.

Ten days later both Benton and Scarpetta - I still wonder what it tells us, the fact that Cornwell uses his first name and her surname as a matter of course? - are in Italy as consultants for International Investigative Response "a special branch of the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes" - an organisation I was surprised to discover really does exist.

The Italian government are a bit jumpy because the victim in the bath turns out to be Drew Martin, young, beautiful, American tennis ace.

There are complications and confusions in the evidence as one would expect from the nature of Cornwell's work - all meticulously detailed and analysed for the lay reader. Also true to form the analysis is worked through by way of dialogue question, answer, counter-question.

Is there any specific reason for this to be in Italy... well, yes, a touch of romance.

But only a touch. Very quickly we are back in Charleston dealing with a host of other problems. A weirdo funeral director, strained relationships with the neighbours, bodies beginning to pile up on the doorstep are just the beginning. Most of what's going on is actually the personal stuff: Scarpetta/Benton being the focus. The ageing Rose has problems of her own... and Marino is on the point of disintegration. He is back in contact with the vindictive celebrity psychologist Dr Self (from Predator), and indulging in a self-destructive relationship with a hateful, but rich & beautiful, local girl.

The bodies piling up all bear similarities to the death of the Drew Martin... and as the team dig deeper, links with other apparently unrelated crimes come to light.

Meanwhile, the unredeemably grotesque Dr Self is receiving and forwarding e-mails from "the Sandman" - who is he, and what connection does he have to what is going on?

The criminal element of the book is as well-researched and tightly plotted as ever. Unfortunately, much of Book of the Dead wanders around the interplay of relationships between the investigators. The result is a serious lack of focus. Two stories are being played out which happen to be concurrent, but don't really interrelate, with the result that it's hard to know which bits you should be caring about. A weakness increased by the fact that crime and forensics is Cornwell's stock in trade, personal stuff is very much by-catch. She'd do well to steer clear of the latter.

The lack of focus matters particularly in a Scarpetta novel, because the first-person narrative of the earlier works was partly what made them so compelling. In Book of the Dead, we're transported across multiple viewpoints: Scarpetta's of course, but also the killer's, Dr Self's, Marino's, his girlfriend's - plus all the third-person external narrative - all of which dilutes the tension and adds to a sense of confusion.

That confusion is not helped by the similarity of names between Marino (the lab-tech/investigator) and Dr Maroni (Italian-American psychologist, currently working the Italian end). If the ploy was intentional to play up similarities between the two - it fails and rather simply serves to slow up the reader while they quickly cross-check which character we're dealing with.

It's by no means a bad book. For those who like their crime detailed and their investigation CSI-likewise, Cornwell continues to deliver. She's still a master of descriptive prose: Water pours through an old brass spout, and darkness pours through a window; eyes... the bruised blue of dusk. The twists work. The loose threads tie up satisfactorily, some predictably, others not so. Openings are left to lead into the next story. I just hope that they won't.

It's time to retire Rose, marry off Scarpetta into happy-ever-after land and find a new focus for the next novel. If one thing makes that clearer than anything else it's that much of the investigation in this tale doesn't seem to attach specifically to our main protagonist. The clues are followed up by everyone, not en masse, but individually, and produce a conglomerate result. Probably true to life, in fact, but not the stuff of truly great crime writing.

From anyone else, it might have warranted a full 4-stars, but for Cornwell, it's below-par - 3.5 at best.

With the risk of Cornwell losing her pole position, it might be time to check out some of the rising stars. Not a bad place to start would be The Chemistry of Death by Simon Beckett or Blood Born by Kathryn Fox.

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