hy are we reading Patricia Cornwell?
Someone is reading her. Last week, Putnam Publishers published a record-breaking one million copy initial print run for Cornwell's most recent tome detailing the life of Virginia Medical Examiner and thrill-seeker Kay Scarpetta. They're promoting it wit
h appearances on The Today Show and CBS This Morning.
A day after release, Unnatural Exposure was already capping the top of the bestseller charts. And it's no disappointment, as far as Cornwell books go. The author has moved away from some of the boring subplots that made Ca
use of Death drag. Yet Exposure is not as despairing a novel as From Potter's Field.
In many ways, it is the perfect Cornwell book to ask the question of: why do we read her? Cornwell thinks she herself has the answer. In a recent interview with Nicholas Allison, she said that "people love my characters because I love my charac
ters and that comes through... "
Somehow, though, I don't think we're reading Cornwell for the same reasons we read Chicken Soup for the Soul. There's a fascination in watching Scarpetta. It's like watching traffic in the moment before a horrific accident; you can'
t tear your eyes away until after the moment of impact. You're trapped by the horror of her predicament.
And what exactly is that predicament?
Again, Cornwell says
it's all Scarpetta's comforting empathy: "You get to have this
adventure with this lady that you like so much and she can take you into places you couldn't go unless she was there to hold yo
ur hand. I don't want to send my readers into the morgue alone, and they're always with her."
This seems more than a bit disingenous, especially by Scarpetta's creator and personal torturer. And if Cornwell believes this, she's wrong. Her books are immensely popular because we have a strong sense of Scarpetta's vulnerability. To portray Scarpet
ta as some sort of guiding guard, gently leading her readers to the subterranean depths of human nature, is to ignore some obvious truths.
Ultimately, the fascination with Scarpetta stems from the fact that she is no guard. She is a prisoner, trapped in the dungeon of her obsession with the dead, and with the horrible realities that lie behind their deaths.
Cornwell obviously feels this truth, as she plays on it continually, always placing Scarpetta directly in the path of some deranged madman who wants to filet her alive, or eat her ears for breakfast, or watch her die of a viral epidemic (Exposur
e's particular charm). "The killer seems to target her personally," writes the New York Times, as if Exposure's use of this trope is something new.
The development of Cornwell's novels are always built on watching Scarpetta discover she is trapped. Gradually, outside human figures like Marino and Benton are removed or become part of her emotional prison of darkness and numb terror. In Unn
atural Exposure, only one scene breaks this style -- when Scarpetta visits the quiet house of an isolated woman who died of the disease. We aren't reading for moments of genuine human feeling here. This doctor is abrasive as broken bone and a
s unfeeling as a Stryker saw.
Yet we get the sense that perhaps Scarpetta wasn't always as unemotional. Cornwell seems to understand the traditional trick of detective fiction, which uses unemotional descriptions of terrible events to imply a complex inner life. The crucial differenc
e in Cornwell is that her most powerful books, like Body of Evidence and Cruel & Unusual, contain absolutely no sense of humor. In contrast, think of the deadpan humor of Chandler's descriptions in The
Big Sleep, or T.R. Pearson's playful explotation in Cry Me a River.
There is no humor in Cornwell -- even black humor -- because being this close to death seems sacred. And we are watching a beast who feeds on the most intimate secrets of our dead bodies. It is all she lives on. The few domestic concerns in Scarpetta'
s mind are merely sketched lines over the larger, darker form of someone who cannot -- and does not -- live outside of the moment her hands plunge into a corpses' bowels, and emerge with the heart of the matter.
As Exposure progresses, the noose around Scarpetta continues to tighten, much as it did in earlier books. As in Potter's Field, she is by turns rendered physically immobile, emotionally destitute (as in P
ostMortem), helpless (Cruel & Unusual), and unable to function. Although Scarpetta goes through the motions, the lack of palpable action by the protagonist is what makes Cornwell's series so unique in the annals of detec
tive fiction. Everything seems to happen to her.
The reason we're reading the Scarpetta Series is the same reason people watch bear-baiting. Scarpetta and the bear can't get away. Although we pretend she is, this novel's rapid-fire denouement shows again that Scarpetta cannot funct
ion as a saviour; she is no white lady in shining armour. She's not even a credible victim most of the time -- any scenes where we'd be screaming our eyes out, she's wondering how many minutes it would take to bleed to death.
However, we're glad Scarpetta's life is the way it is. Every
volume allows us to ask -- again -- why a presumably attrative and vital
woman like Kay is enveloped in the residue of decay, reeking of
formaldahyde and the effluvium of burst internal organs.
It is nearly the same question one was always asking about Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal, hannibal, such an intelligent, cultured man, who happened to enjoy killing and eating fellow humans. Likewise Scarpetta is an intelligent, culture
d woman, who happens to spend her life buried in the peronital cavities of half-decayed neighbors.
Like animals caught in a carnivore's glance, we read Cornwell for scenes that repell and fascinate. In fact, after I finished Unnatural Exposure, I found myself thinking of Florida Medical Examiner William Maples' Dead Men Do
In this true-life account of Maples' forensic anthropology career, there is a terrific scene where he is boiling the flesh off a recent body, in order to examine the bones. Visitors come into another part of the building, and exclaim "yum, what's coo
king?" When Maples explains that he's merely cooking corpse, everyone turns green with horror, and quickly leaves.
If Scarpetta was there, would she take a taste? Ostensibly, of course, if she did, she would be testing for the particular trace that foretells a particularly terrifying chemical in the bloodstream. Perhaps she would be tasting for the lethal strains o
f the small-pox derived plague she deduces in Unnatural Exposure. But still, I think she'd take a spoonful.
She's a ghoul, but a complicated one. That's why we love her.
-- Josef Kaye