Despite my low expectations I am rather pleased to be able to write that this 16th outing for forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta shows a definite return to form for Cornwall over the rather convoluted narratives and self-indulgent characterisations of her last few books in the series. The plot involves the hunt for a sadistic serial killer and while fairly straightforward there are still plenty of surprises and layers. As with all the Scarpetta books the forensic aspects are excellent and very up-to-the-minute. Like Kathy Reichs, Cornwell does take the occasional 'pot shot' at the C.S.I. TV phenomena through the voices of her own fictional characters.
Kay Scarpetta is now based in Massachusetts with a new consulting role for the NYC Police Department. At the opening of the book she is summoned to New York to examine an injured patient at Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital. Oscar Bane had been found in the apartment of his raped and murdered girlfriend. Exhibiting signs of paranoia, he had asked to be admitted to Bellevue and insisted that he would only allow Kay Scarpetta to collect physical forensic evidence from him. D.A. Jamie Berger acquiesces to this demand for a number of reasons including her concerns linked to Oscar and his late girlfriend being little people. There is already a media storm brewing with the tabloid press stirring things up and minority rights organisations expressing their concerns. Why does Oscar feel a connection with Kay? Is Oscar the murderer? Well I'm certainly not saying!
As with any long running series there is the problem of how to introduce the characters and attendant back stories for new readers while not slowing down the opening or sending faithful readers to sleep with all the exposition. Cornwell partly handles this by having Scarpetta targeted by an on-line celebrity bashing blog titled Gotham Gotcha!. This also gives her the opportunity to score some nice hits against the stalker-like nature of these kinds of sites and their lack of journalistic integrity.
Overall I found the route from opening to final page a satisfying one appreciating the strong psychological element that makes it as much a whydunit as a whodunit. Without saying too much about the development of her central cast of characters I was very happy that the soap opera-ish elements that annoyed me so much in Book of the Dead has been dropped in favour of everyone acting like the mature professionals they are suppose to be. Certainly there are various relationship and life issues for all of them but these didn't overshadow the central murder case and this felt a better balance for me. So a relived thumbs up for Scarpetta as I have enjoyed Cornwell's writing over the years and this book left me wanting more. So I'm now looking forward to Scarpetta's next outing and shall likely return to buying my copy on publication.