- Patient: "Doc, it hurts whenever I do this."
- Doctor: "My advice is stop doing it."
I think I’m ready to take the doctor's advice, and stop reading Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta novels. The last good one was in the previous century, and they might even be getting worse. Take, for instance, The Bone Bed.
An unknown correspondent e-mailed Kay Scarpetta a video shot in northeast Alberta, out in the land of tar sands. The email was accompanied by a photograph of a human ear, an ear without the rest of the head. Apparently a vertebrate paleontologist studying dinosaur bones has gone missing, and it might be her ear. After another 300 pages or so, Scarpetta will get back to the missing woman. Meanwhile, an unidentified fiftyish woman’s body turns up in Boston Harbor, the same day the Doc’s is scheduled to testify in a murder-for-hire case with a missing fiftyish female victim. Hilarity ensues…
Somehow, Wesley determines that the dead three women are all victims of the same serial killer, who – get this – has killed yet another unfortunate whose body even now lies in Scarpetta's morgue. Busy place, that morgue. In the meantime, Scarpetta rescues a kitty-cat; Marino acts like a surly teen; Lucy behaves cryptically; Scarpetta and Wesley each flirt with a younger, hotter coworker; and somewhere in that mess someone betrays the heroine. It’s pretty much the plot of the past ten or so Scarpetta novels.
If you’ve read any crime fiction lately, you can probably predict that those two, no three, no four bodies will resolve into one case that Benton can profile: that's a given. What’s not given is the scarcity of clues for readers about the villain, information connecting the cases, and why the heck Scarpetta’s involved to begin with. The revelation of the villain’s identity is crushingly unsatisfying, as Cornwell simply elevates a flat character who’d only appeared once or twice before the climactic scene. That’s no bueno: a readers should be able to out the mystery on their own.
Another strike against, one that's in all the recent Scarpetta novels, is constant squabbling within the Doc’s posse; along with possible "evidence" pointing to Marino. Why Scarpetta keeps her ambulatory liability at hand after all his antics is a bigger mystery than those murders! Perhaps worst, though, is the way Cornwell assigns Scarpetta omniscience, clairvoyance and telepathy; giving her the ability to intuit what almost anyone around her is thinking. Unfortunately, that ability doesn’t extend to her closest associates, her husband or her niece.
For some reason I read The Bone Bed and the next Scarpetta novel, Dust, in the wrong order. It made no difference, though: both are full of great forensics, but have almost no plot development: Scarpetta examines a body and mere few pages later, the case neatly solves itself. Unfortunately, all the pages between investigation and solution lack any character development, only a literary equivalent of a Jerry Springer taping.
My thoughts? Take the doc’s doctor advice: "Stop doing it."