The morgue the merrier
Forty years after his death, two of Bruce Lee's siblings reminisce about their famous brother's life and a legacy that is inspiring a whole new generation of fighters. Jo Baker reports.
Cause of Death by Patricia Cornwell, Little Brown $170 Kay Scarpetta is becoming a liability. The chief medical examiner of Virginia, and the protagonist of Patricia Cornwell's award-winning set of crime novels, has overreached herself.
Instead of sticking to the corpses, where she's an undeniable expert, Scarpetta is looking for the big time, and making some critical mistakes.
In Cause of Death, the latest of an otherwise excellent series, Scarpetta not only engages in highly dangerous and unnecessary adventure activities, but she also interferes with high-level FBI negotiations with crazed terrorists, ostensibly because she is 'worried' about her grown-up niece running into danger.
Since her niece, Lucy, is now a card-holding employee of the FBI, this hardly seems to be professional behaviour.
The plot is neither interesting nor new: satanic cult members take over a nuclear power station, and they don't mind who they kill.
It is like James Bond without sex or dry martinis to keep the story racing, and the horrors of Waco were so much more awful than anything Cornwell has dreamed up.
The first six Scarpetta books were successful mainly because they gave a rare and convincing opportunity to be a voyeur into the morbidly fascinating world of criminal pathology - the minds of the detectives, and, most terrifying, the minds of the men and women who are driven to kill and maim.
Scarpetta's patients are dead: her role is to find out why. Her clues are tiny, her observations have to be meticulously attentive: Noticing the fluff on a dead boy's collar, a strange smell around the murder scene, flecks of unusual soap on the skin; these are the good doctor's weapons, these are the tests of her skills.
As a chief examiner, her job is to examine the bodies, find out what secrets they are keeping. It is not to wave guns around and look dangerous, which is the role she seems to yearn for. Possibly Cornwell's best book was The Body Farm, a story about a 12-year-old girl murdered after leaving Sunday school to walk home on a deserted path by a lake. That little girl was her, Cornwell once revealed.
It almost seems as if, having stared her own deepest fears fully in the face, she has no more insights about evil to give.
As far as relationships are concerned, the only surprises are how little is happening. In Scarpetta's romantic world, everything is in a tedious state of stasis.
Her on-off relationship with a married man is also barely developed further, as if it had suddenly become an embarrassment to the plot.
I fear the introduction of 'family values' is a concession to Hollywood, whose directors have recently been pulling their cheque books out.
Cornwell has always sailed rather close to the wind on the coincidence front. Scarpetta, her colleagues and Lucy have always had either lucky strokes of detective fortune, or have been involved strangely and dangerously closely with the criminal being pursued. But the stories have been so absorbing that it has been easy to forgive her artistic licence.
This time however, forgiveness is harder. Everything is so neatly compartmentalised it is tedious.
Cornwell's strength has always been in her commitment to real in-depth research. She spent six years working in the office of the medical examiner of Virginia, watching and assisting in more than 500 autopsies. She also worked as a crime reporter in Richmond, getting to know the police and the CIA personnel and methodology.
Not that she has failed to do research for this book. As well as some highly justifiable Internet surfing, she has evidently spent the past year or so in wetsuits, gunshops and Concorde lounges. All very glam for the author, but if her books are going to be worthy of their substantial following, she would do well to cancel her exotic jaunts for next year.
Kay Scarpetta is a pathologist, not an adventurer. If Cornwell is genuinely committed to developing her character, she should join her, and spend the next 12 months in the morgue.