The last time we checked, Kay Scarpetta JD, MD, FACP, etc., had been run off from a job she loved – the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia – and reduced to trolling morgues as a mercenary pathologist. Upon her return to Florida Scarpetta, accompanied by her puppyish, always-loyal detective Marino, allied herself with niece Lucy's security firm, The Last Precinct. Energized, though understandably dismayed by the resurrection of longtime lover Benton Wesley (ain't Witness Protection great?), Scarpetta seemed finally back on track.
Five years after she slunk away from Virginia, Scarpetta’s presence was commanded at the scenes of her greatest triumphs and deepest failure. At the request of her "replacement," Scarpetta returned to investigate the death of fourteen-year-old Gilly Paulsson. Things, however, in Richmond were not as Kay remembered them: the facility that was her home for years was being razed, and the building she'd designed to exacting specifications was falling apart. Her old staff stumbled about in a daze, morale was in the dumper, and the air stank of political intrigue and rampant mediocrity. Not much of a homecoming...
Down in Florida, Lucy lived a rock-star life, complete with her own chopper, Ferraris, and a starlet in her bed – that is, until her pretty blonde employee and bedmate, Henri, was attacked at the mansion she and Lucy shared. The "beast" who'd attacked Henri still roamed the beaches and streets, leaving cryptic clues for the enraged Lucy. Henri was shipped to Aspen with the reborn Benton, messing up Kay's plans for a lusty reunion.
It turned out to be business as usual for Scarpetta and Marino; making up rules as they went along and breaking any rules already in place. Not only had Scarpetta returned to Richmond, she'd also regained the fierce independence and cool competence she'd seemed to leave behind. The old Kay was back, and Marino was as in lust as ever. Nothing could stand in their way; not stodgy bureaucrats, not buttoned-down Feebs, not sex-crazed housewives; least of all a loony with a baseball bat and a storage shed full of cremains. Yuck-o.
After the totally forgettable Blow Fly, Patricia Cornwell has a lot of 'splainin' to do; especially since that book followed the even worse Isle of Dogs. The once-invincible Scarpetta went off the deep end after Benton's "death" and her tussle with a bizarre French werewolf. The series took a dive as well, lacking focus: no more Temple Gault, no more Chandonne, no more wicked interludes with a married Wesley. Oddly, the Scarpetta novels went south at about the same time Cornwell's public image was being battered in a messy divorce case.
Although an improvement over Cornwell’s Isle of Dogs and Blow Fly, Trace still fails to atone for Patricia’s sins. Scarpetta, even after the "Dallas"-style return of Wesley, remains a shadow of her former self. She's still the consummate professional with the massive intellect, but she seems somehow diminished. It's only in contrast with her flawed supporting cast that she appears at all normal.
Where Marino was once Scarpetta’s rock - blustering, egomaniacal, decidedly un-PC, but a rock nonetheless - he's now a caricatured TV cop with his Atkins-thinned frame in those black parachute pants and that LAPD baseball cap. And poor Lucy: with each appearance she seems to drift deeper into a troubled world: an angry adrenaline junky and near-alcoholic, who’s addicted to sex. Dr. Marcus, Scarpetta's supposed replacement suffers from anxiety attacks and irrationality, while Scarpetta's former assistant Fielding simply wastes away. Surrounded by this bunch, Scarpetta looks somewhat normal; even though she isn’t.
Early Scarpetta novels were tightly-plotted, with continuously building suspense and a villain worthy of the Doc’s massive intellect. Not so this time: the suspense level wobbles about and the villain is apparently so beneath contempt that Scarpetta skips the capture scene. Instead of tight plotting, readers rattle back and forth between scenes with Lucy in Miami and Scarpetta in Richmond, with the occasional visit to Wesley in Aspen: why anyone would be interested in his treatment of Lucy's assault victim isn’t apparent.
No, Trace is not the Scarpetta of Cornwell classics like The Body Farm and From Potter's Field. Cornwell might be on her way back, but she's not there yet