Autopsy Gothic

Tragic realism, Cornwell style.

Point of Origin
By Patricia Cornwell
Putnam; 352 pages; $25.95

Who is today’s leading conservative novelist? One candidate is Patricia Cornwell, the best-selling mystery writer based in Richmond, Va. A pert blond dynamo who could be Susan Molinari’s big sister, she’s also got the credentials. Her first book wasn’t a mystery but a loving biography of Ruth Graham, the Rev. Billy’s wife. She’s an advocate for tougher law enforcement and was a public supporter of Virginia’s Republican former Gov. George Allen. A few novels back, she even based a fictional senator on Orrin Hatch and paid tribute to him as a brave soldier fighting for truth. Her latest is dedicated to Barbara Bush, “with love.”

On the other hand, Cornwell doesn’t always fit the conservative bill. Allied with men who prefer their women dutiful and demure, she herself has a macho side. She flies a helicopter and makes statements about women surviving in a men’s world that could be confused with feminism. Her novels argue that criminals must pay for their actions–no forgiveness, no rehabilitation, no excuses whatsoever–but she’s also admitted to bouts with childhood molestation, bulimia, and bipolar mood swings, and she has asked that people who suffer such traumas be given a little TLC. There are hints that she has a most un-Billy Graham-like lifestyle. In a bizarre episode a couple of years ago, an FBI agent claimed he was driven to attempt to murder his wife because Cornwell was having an affair with her.

In work and in life, Cornwell screams ambivalence, which may explain why she’s so popular and so queasily interesting. At a time when most pop best sellers seem dumbed down to please a focus group, Cornwell is a rarity: a writer with a vivid, at times even freakishly messy, personality. She condemns America’s moral decline with the smugness of a Charlton Heston, but her narcissism and button pushing skills give the early Madonna a run for her money.

The heroine of eight of Cornwell’s nine mysteries is Kay Scarpetta. She’s middle-aged but still damned good looking, tough but vulnerable, and other assorted mystery cliché traits. What’s special about her is her job, chief medical examiner of Virginia, which allows her to witness more gruesome sights than one could dream of. During the 1980s, Cornwell worked in a coroner’s office, and now she specializes in clinical descriptions of autopsies, explaining in graphic detail how to analyze the vaginal swab of a raped corpse or how to test skin ripped off a tortured child’s buttock. As if that weren’t bad enough, Cornwell has also given Scarpetta problematic colleagues. There’s Pete Marino, a bigoted and emotionally stunted cop who eats and drinks too much, and Benton Wesley, an older WASP FBI profiler with whom she eventually strikes up an affair.

I n Postmortem (1990), Scarpetta’s impressive debut, the tone was grim and graphic, focused on the nitty-gritty of crime detection and the challenges faced by a woman entering this mostly male business. Scarpetta was the American counterpart, in a way, to Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison of the British TV series Prime Suspect. As sales skyrocketed, Cornwell hired a staff of researchers to help work up her autopsy nightmares. The details are now more rigorous and even more clinically rendered. (Click to read the latest tour de force, in which Scarpetta boils a dead woman’s bones.) But the plots have evolved to an abstract level–a kind of metaphorical mist–and Scarpetta has acquired two archenemies: Temple Gault, an evil-genius, white-trash skinhead, and his accomplice, an attractive young psychopath named Carrie Grethen. After several tries, Scarpetta finally defeated Gault, murdering him in a Manhattan subway tunnel. But in the new installment Grethen escapes from a mental asylum and goes after her.

Characters like Gault and Grethen are the basis of the standard praise for Cornwell, which is that she has a Dickensian grasp of evil. Don’t believe it. Temple and Carrie are cartoon meanies who hate Scarpetta for no apparent reason; they’re about as Dickensian as a satanic clown doll named Chuckie. Cornwell’s plots are getting weaker, and I won’t claim too much for her prose, either. Lacking the self-monitoring skill that’s crucial to a really good writer, she projects ugly fixations onto Scarpetta, remarking constantly–and with embarrassing, naked approval–on her blond, “Teutonic” looks.

My favorite Cornwellian clunker is a cheap bid for sinister atmosphere, the Scary Noun. That’s when she drops the article before some harmless inanimate object, lending it a kind of pseudohuman agency. Examples include “rain was slanted and flying down like nails,” and “rocks were black beneath stars,” and–frightening enough to make you shiver–“windshield wipers dragged across glass.” (Click for more reasons to dislike Cornwell.)

S o why do we all keep reading? Voyeuristic slumming, in part. You wait with bated breath to see which hot social issue Cornwell will take up and handle oddly. In the latest novel she addresses race–sort of–in the form of a rich, power hungry, sexually overactive but ultimately humane black activist and publisher. Point of Origin also further develops Cornwell’s most loaded theme, lesbianism, by way of Scarpetta’s niece, Lucy. A little girl when the series began, Lucy is now a brilliant young woman. Scarpetta is turned off by Lucy’s lesbian lifestyle and convinced that that awful pervert Grethen seduced Lucy into it. At the same time, she’s moved to rather suspect erotic awe by the nubile beauty of Lucy’s perfect young body.

On such issues, Cornwell is hilariously confused but not without insight. The increasing abstraction of her plots allows her to do what she does best: write about the job. The most poignant parts of her books detail the pressures Scarpetta faces as an executive who’s responsible for the welfare of her subordinates but under ruthless pressure to deliver results; the impossibility of sorting through overwhelming floods of information and straining for an educated guess; the sadness of a life lived in helicopters and planes rather than in hotels; the inadequacy of colleagues who function like family but aren’t. So what if Cornwell perks up these not so uncommon problems with a backdrop of unadulterated, almost supernatural evil? She conveys, somehow, a genuine grief. Call it millennial, if you must, or simply modern-professional Gothic. “The pain is out there,” could be her slogan. At the end of Point of Origin, someone Scarpetta cares about meets a fate so gross and far-fetched it made me giggle. It was also sad enough to remember for a while.

If you missed the excerpt from Point of Origin, click, and are more reasons to dislike Cornwell.