Cornwell gets personal with her people
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AFTER the distasteful Point Of Origin and the dismal Southern Cross last year, anyone could be forgiven for thinking Patricia Cornwell - the queen of forensic thrillers - had totally lost the plot.
Southern Cross, second in the Hornet's Nest series, 'starred' heroine, policewoman Virginia West. It never really took off so there was a lot of hope riding on Point Of Origin.
But then Cornwell took her readers on a shockfest that had less to do with a good plot than an attempt to turn chief medical examiner Kay Scarpetta into a vulnerable woman overnight. In the process she also churned readers' stomachs with overly graphic scenes of flesh being stripped from boiling bones.
Cornwell has evidently not lost the urge to shock. In this book the chief of the fingerprints and impression lab slips the skin of a dead man's hands off like a glove, 'working his own latex-sheathed hands inside them' so he can more easily take the prints. The only difference is that the inordinate amount of background activity provides a distraction to the queasy scenes.
And there is a lot going on in Black Notice, which opens a year after Scarpetta's FBI lover Benton Wesley is brutally murdered by the ruthless Carrie Gretchen.
Everyone is still down in the dumps: Scarpetta, because she still mourns Wesley; Pete Marino, because he has just been demoted to traffic duties by the new police chief, Diane Bray; and niece Lucy, because it is just in her nature to be morose and dissatisfied with life.
In the midst of all this a body turns up in a sealed container from Belgium. There are no clues except for a message scrawled on a nearby crate - 'Bon voyage le loup-garou' (have a good trip, werewolf) - and long blond hairs found on the inside of the dead man's clothing.
The clues lead Scarpetta to Paris and a prominent family with a shameful secret - and the fact that a 'werewolf' may be on the loose in Richmond, Virginia.
It never rains but it pours for Scarpetta. In the year her staff has been tiptoeing around her so as not to upset her further, the medical examiner's office has fallen into disarray. Things have been going missing in the office and someone has pilfered her computer password and is impersonating her on an Internet chat forum - giving out bad advice.
She also finds out the ambitious Bray has plans to take the medical examiner's office under her wing.
With Black Notice (which actually means 'corpse to be identified'), Cornwell has taken her Scarpetta series to a more personal level.
The mystery itself takes a backseat to the shenanigans of the characters who, after so many books, have become like family to readers.
What little suspense there is to the werewolf mystery dissipates after the origin of the blond hairs is discovered and Cornwell neatly ties up whatever inconsistencies there may be with a very convenient plot to encompass all the characters.
Cornwell could have - and has - done a lot worse.
Black Notice by Patricia Cornwell Little, Brown $215