Autopsy by Patricia Cornwell

Reviewed by Rod McLary

At the outset, I should declare that I have read almost all the Dr Kay Scarpetta novels by Patricia Cornwell.  Consequently, I come to this review with a slight bias in the author’s favour.  However, to balance that bias, I consider that not all the Scarpetta novels are equal – some are better than others and there are even a couple which suggest that the author may have lost her way.  Yet, Autopsy – the subject of this review – stands out as one of the more successful of the novels.  It is a very engaging and thrilling read and one in which any afficionado of Patricia Cornwell and Kay Scarpetta will immediately feel at home.

By any standard, Patricia Cornwell is a very successful and best-selling crime writer.  In 1990, she introduced the world to Dr Kay Scarpetta via her first novel Postmortem.  Autopsy is now the twenty-fifth with Scarpetta as the chief protagonist.  Alongside Scarpetta through all these novels have been her niece Lucy; her lover – now husband – Benton Wesley; Pete Marino – once a police captain in Richmond Virginia and now freelance private investigator; and her narcissistic older sister Dorothy – a very successful author of children’s books and also Lucy’s mother.

In Postmortem, Dr Scarpetta began her fictional life as Chief Medical Examiner [CME] of the State of Virginia and, in subsequent books, worked in similar roles in both the public and private sectors.  In Autopsy, Scarpetta returns to Richmond taking over from an inadequate and incompetent [male] Chief Medical Examiner who – in the way of the world – has been promoted to a more senior position.  In common with all the Scarpetta novels, the themes of a forensic investigation of a murder, the preparation and consumption of Italian food and wine, the importance of family and – in the denouement – a violent and often fatal confrontation with the killer/s are all present  And, in this book, to leave no doubt that Scarpetta and Wesley are high flyers, both are summoned to a top-secret meeting with the President and Vice-President of the United States and other high-ranking government officials.  The purpose of this meeting as the reader will discover is out of this world in more ways than one.

Scarpetta begins her new role as CME investigating a particularly gruesome murder of a young biomedical engineer Gwen Hainey.  Although the murder had already been rather gratuitously investigated by the erstwhile CME and then dismissed, Scarpetta is unwilling to allow an unsolved murder to stand.  In her investigation, assisted by Marino, she discovers a link with an older unsolved murder, and, in a novel and unexpected twist, with ongoing espionage at its highest level.

It is not by chance that the title of this novel is derived from the Greek word autopsia which translates as ‘to see for oneself’.  Scarpetta is unwilling to delegate any detail of her investigation and her step-by-step involvement contributes significantly to the thrill of the chase as she and Marino painstakingly sift through the detritus of the victims’ lives and, in the nature of the Matryoshka dolls, uncover secrets within secrets.

The denouement when it comes is both thrilling and chilling – thrilling in its slow mounting tension and chilling in its level of violence even if the killer perhaps deserved as violent a death as that he gave his victims.  A slightly incongruous note is introduced in the opening sentence of the Epilogue – only three days after the killer’s death – where Scarpetta says to Marino as they prepare dinner ‘You can never have enough garlic … and the same with wine’ [391].  Perhaps being a medical examiner and a retired detective inures one to violent death.

All in all, Autopsy achieves everything it should – it is engrossing and exciting and written with skill and compassion.  There is a depth to each of the characters which brings the reader to a sense of knowing them and largely liking them.  Even Marino, who in some of the Scarpetta novels has what could generously be called an over-developed sense of machismo, has mellowed in Autopsy to the extent that he is comfortable being kitchen hand to Scarpetta’s chef.

As mentioned in this review’s opening paragraph, Patricia Cornwell has returned to her considerable form with this latest Scarpetta book.

Well recommended.



by Patricia Cornwell

Harper Collins

ISBN 978 14607 6035 2

$32.99; 398pp

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