Thursday, 24 September 2015

The Trial of 'The Body Farm' by Patricia Cornwell (Kay Scarpetta #5)

*This review will contain spoilers*

In the most exciting Kay Scarpetta novel so far, 'The Body Farm' kicks off in explosive fashion with the death of an eleven year old girl. What makes it worse? It appears she's a victim of Temple Brooks Gault, the serial killer who escaped at the end of 'Cruel and Unusual'.
Young Emily Steiner was abducted from her home in the middle of the night, and was found six days later beside the lake in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Black Mountain is not a town that is prepared to deal with homicides, so the fact that it could be linked to the wider work of a serial killer is absolutely horrifying to the residents. In another shocking twist, one of the investigators, Ferguson, ends up dead - seemingly through auto-erotic asphyxiation - and the officer who found him at home has an extremely serious heart attack. It's left down to the indomitable Kay Scarpetta, Pete Marino (now Captain), and profiler Benton Wesley to attempt to solve the case.
The focus starts off on Gault, obviously - the murder mirrors that of Eddie Heath, Gault's first victim, with excised flesh patches being found on the neck and inner thighs and a gunshot wound through the back of Emily's head. However, when Ferguson is found hanging, they find him wearing a pair of Emily's mother's panties and he has bagged flesh in his freezer - both rather incriminating pieces of evidence. Adding to this, it's rumoured that Emily's school janitor, Creed Lindsey, had feelings for Emily - he's a simple-minded fellow who attempted to be friends with the children by giving them sweets and becomes a suspect because he was suspected believed to be the perpetrator of a hit and run at a different school many years previously.
Meanwhile, Kay's niece, Lucy (who you will remember from previous installments in the series) is having a tough time - she's having a secret relationship with a woman and doesn't know how to tell anyone, it appears she broke into the lab at Quantico in the middle of the night so she is taken off of her internship with the FBI, and she crashes Kay's car after drinking too much at a meal. Kay doesn't want to believe Lucy did these things, despite the quickly mounting evidence against her, so she actives her super stealth investigating mode once more, and tries to get to the bottom of things. Kay is deeply suspicious of Carrie, Lucy's girlfriend, and she goes to visit her in the shop where she works - after their confrontation, Kay is certain she created a cast of Lucy's thumbprint to infiltrate the laboratory.
But despite this discovery, many things still don't add up for Kay. Once she investigates Lucy's car accident, she realises the back bumper of her Mercedes is covered in mint green paint - Carrie's car is red, so that takes her out of the equation. She meets Creek Lindsey and doesn't believe he could have harmed a fly - he's much too simple. But after learning that the Steiner's had another daughter who died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome before they moved to the area, she decides to go further into Emily's mother's background - she believes Denesa may be lying to her.
It turns out that there was no SIDS victim; she fabricated the existence of the other child. This makes Kay suspect that Denesa may be suffering from Munchausen's syndrome - a psychological disorder when the sufferer fakes emotional or physical trauma to get attention and sympathy from those surrounding her. Kay is convinced Denesa must have killed Emily herself, and when she realises that Denesa's car was the same colour as the one that drove Lucy off the road, she realised that the mother had actually been trying to kill her to stop her from discovering her dirty little secret. Kay goes round to the house to attempt to find proof - finding it in the bathtub in the basement, which had blood around the plug hole and a quarter that had marked Emily's skin after her death. Kay and Marino have been arguing, so he has been staying at Denesa's to get some space from her and to console the grieving mother, but as soon as Denesa knows Kay has caught her she attempts to murder Marino in one final showdown. Kay gets to the room and kills Denesa with a shotgun blast, and thankfully manages to save Marino's life.

Compared to the previous Scarpetta novels, this one was much more low key. Instead of having three or four murders, there were just two - yes, they were both equally confusing and shocking, but it made it much more effective to just be focusing on those two throughout the novel. Linking in a previous serial killer was a brilliant choice, and I loved the fact that the story had a brilliant pace set throughout it - there was no lull to introduce the characters or the plot, because it was the most direct continuation out of the series so far.
I also adored the fact that the murderer was a woman. The first four books all had male killers, and with women also committing heinous crimes it seemed about time that the pool of perpetrators widened a little bit. Yes, the mother killing her daughter was a harrowing inclusion, but it does happen - and more frequently than you would believe, as fillicide causes over 400 deaths each year in the USA and even more than that worldwide. It made it much more realistic than most of the previous novels, which included random killers picking random victims - yes, that does happen, but a murderer picking someone close to home is something that will emotionally affect a much greater fraction of the readers.
There was some very definite mirroring between the victims lives and our investigators lives in this novel. As Kay herself said, "It seems this is all about people loving people who don't love them back", and while it might have been a bit of a cliched theme it was pulled off tremendously. Emily Steiner loves a young boy called Wren, who invites her to meet him as a joke, breaking her little heart - Creek Lindsey has inappropriate feelings for Emily so tries to look after her, and is very jealous of her relationship with Wren. Almost the same thing is happening to Kay, Wesley and Marino. Despite the fact that Benton has been married since before 'Postmortem', he decides that this is the book in which he will embark on an illicit love affair with Kay, despite the fact that he knows Marino (his best friend!) has feelings for her. Kay knows that she could never love Marino, but doesn't want to hurt him, so completely ignores that the situation is going on - this, of course, hurts him even more. Benton makes no attempt to leave his wife, so he doesn't seem to love her or Kay that much, because he's hurting both of them.
This, combined with Lucy's story, means that the entire novel seems to be revolving around unrequited and inappropriate love. Lucy's in love with Carrie, and Carrie is straight and manipulating her feelings - unrequited love. Emily loves her mother, but her mother loves attention - unrequited love leading to inappropriate love. The same can be said for Lucy and her mother, Kay's sister Dorothy, but their story doesn't end as dramatically. You'd think it would get a bit preachy, but surprisingly it stays interesting because the investigations are still the focal point - this isn't a romance novel with a bit of crime, this is a crime novel that is dealing with people's lives.
The most interesting part of the novel for me was definitely The Body Farm itself. The Body Farm is a facility where scientists can research the effects of decomposition in different environments, with different weather and temperatures taken into consideration. This means that there are cadavers scattered around the area, set up in different ways, so that they can monitor and better find time of death based on decomposition. I had never heard of the concept before, and of course I was stunned to find out that it was a real thing that actually exists - it seems like such a strange idea, even if it is a brilliant way to examine something that really needs to be known about. It would have been good if The Body Farm had featured more heavily: consider the fact that the book is titled after it, then consider the fact that only ten or so pages actually take place inside the facility...
I will admit that the ending did seem a tad melodramatic. I was surprised Marino wasn't already dead, seeing as how none of the team had seen him for days and none of them were really too worried about that, so Kay running in and saving him at the last second just didn't seem feasible. The last three books have been foreshadowing his eventual demise, so I'm just thinking that it's going to happen in the next book now, instead.

'The Body Farm' is definitely the best Kay Scarpetta novel to date. It just feels like Patricia Cornwell finally got the perfect toss-up between investigation and character development, leading to a rich and well-explored plot and brilliant interactions between the characters. Kay is definitely starting to become more in control of her own existence - some of the facets of her personality that annoyed me in the earlier novels have been worn away, but the development is very natural so she still feels like the same person. I think the relationships between her and Benton and her and Marino will continue to become more dimensional and more layered, which cannot be a bad thing.
I loved the fact that the killer was a female, I loved the linking in of Temple Brooks Gault and I loved the fact that they were using a copycat killer - all three definitely added to the plot and the depth of the novel. If Patricia Cornwell can write another novel like this one, this series will just keep getting better. I feel as though she's crafted her writing into such a place that she doesn't need to use tricks to get attention - we don't need another book that takes place over nearly a year and includes ten murders, we just need a couple of characters, a tightly crafted plot and a two week time scale - much better.
I am interested to see what happens with Lucy's character. Kay seems to have finally accepted the fact that she can be a mother towards the girl despite not being her biological mother, so I'm hoping we're going to get some more interactions between them in the future. I'm also anticipating what Patricia can do with Lucy's character - being the first openly gay character in our core cast, and with this being the '90s, it could be good to see how she progressed with her, and how her attitude changes in future books.
I won't be too surprised if Benton and Kay continue their affair - there's a good opportunity for someone to find out and start blackmailing them, so that's likely to be used. I'd be happier if Benton just went ahead and left his wife like a decent person, instead of sneaking around behind her back. Despite the fact that it's morally wrong, I actually really enjoy their relationship and their interactions are brilliant - after the death of Mark, Kay really deserves someone who will care for her and who won't psychologically destroy her, and I think it might make her character even stronger if she had a perfectly stable home life.
I'm hoping Gault will pop up again - maybe not in the next book, but maybe in a couple books time - because it still feels as though there's unresolved business there, but other than that this was a pretty perfect specimen of a crime novel for me. 

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

The Trial of 'Cruel and Unusual' by Patricia Cornwell (Kay Scarpetta #4)

*This review will contain spoilers*

Firstly, I must apologise profusely for this review being so late in its arrival - the idea of reading a Patricia Cornwell novel a week was a brilliant one, until life got in the way and I didn't have enough time to follow through on it. It's here now, though, and hopefully I'll get back on track with the fifth book in the series.

This novel starts off in a wholly different way: with the death of Ronnie Joe Waddell, a death row inmate. Kay is disturbed by this aspect of her job - needing to prepare an autopsy for someone who is still living - and she still holds out hope that the governor will call of the execution, allowing her to have a night off in her own home. Alas, the governor shows no such mercy, and Kay finds herself travelling to the morgue in the middle of the night to work on a freshly deceased man.
The same night that Ronnie Joe gets executed, a boy is found attacked - his clothes removed and piled at his feet, a gunshot wound straight through his head, and areas of his skin on the inside of his left leg and on his left shoulder removed. The two events cannot be connected, but the position of the boy's body is extremely similar to the position that Ronnie Joe left his victim in nine years before. Even stranger, a single eiderdown feather is found on the body.
Fast forward a couple of weeks, and another body is found: this one a suspected suicide victim, found in her garage with a hose pipe leading from her car exhaust into the drivers' side window. However, Jennifer Deighton's death could not have been a suicide - her lungs have no evidence of breathing in the noxious gases, because she was dead before she was placed in her car. When Ronnie Joe's fingerprint is found at her house, the case takes another surprising twist - how could the murderer be a dead man? What's even more inexplicable is the fact that Ronnie Joe's fingerprints have completely gone from their records, and he was cremated straight after his death so there's no chance to take more.
Even more people end up dead - Susan, Kay Scarpetta's mortuary assistant, found shot dead in her car, Frank Donahue, the prison warden, found in the same way. The media start turning all attention to Kay, as Susan's husband blames her for her death - this, combined with the fact that Susan had a large influx of money in her bank account soon after Kay made a large withdrawal... It all looks like it's going downhill for our heroine.
After being forced to take paid leave, Kay is determined to prove her innocence, so attempts to recreate the decade old murder scene of Robyn Naismith. Once she finds prints that prove Ronnie Joe was not the murderer, it's obvious what has really happened - someone high up has switched prints, so there's a psycho on the loose masquerading as a dead man.
Due to some well-placed hunches, they track the killer down - a Temple Brooks Gault, who had been secretly released from prison some months earlier. With the announcement on the news that there had been feathers found at the crime scenes, Temple contacted the police to announce that his eiderdown jacket had been stolen - by filing the theft report, it automatically put him out of the line of inquiry. When Kay catches on to this, she contacts Marino and they rush to Temple's apartment, but it's too late - he's already run out of the window, never to be seen again.

If you've been following my series of Patricia Cornwell reviews so far, you'll know I often have two complaints about her novels, but thankfully this one broke both of them. We interacted with the killer very early on - in a very minor, forgettable role, but interacted nonetheless - and at this point, with the killer on the run, there is a hell of a lot of potential for what could happen in book five (or later on in the series).
Yes, there was a lot going on in this novel. The seemingly unrelated homicides of Eddie, Jennifer, Susan and Frank were obviously going to end up linked in the end, but at the time of each of them it was almost easier to treat them as separate events - if you dwelt too much on the fact that they were going to be linked by culprit, it really did hurt your brain. Patricia Cornwell was very clever in her set up of this novel: by dropping small clues and small coincidences, it made it a lot easier to stay interested and switched on by the story.
It was also genius to finally allow us to see how death affected the chief medical examiner. As someone who interacts with the dead daily, Kay has often seemed unaffected and aloof, but with the knowledge that her lover - Mark James - died in a terrorist attack in London, her attitude changes quite drastically. Hearing from Marino and Lucy, amongst other people who love and care about her, it really does bring to life the way that grief affects people, and how we all deal with the same situations in vastly different ways. It added a very touching, human element to the novel, and I think it made it a lot easier to empathise with and care for Kay. I hated the fact that Mark was dead (I nearly shed tears on the bus!) but it had to happen to allow our protagonist to become fully fledged and developed into her own character, so it was a blessing in disguise.
The reappearance of Lucy was also brilliant - she hasn't appeared in the novels since 'Postmortem', and it was interesting to see how she had grown up. She still has extreme attachment issues due to her uncaring mother, but her brain has trebled in size and she was a welcome addition to the crime solving crew - I sincerely hope Benton Wesley follows through on his offer of employment when she graduates. Throughout most of the first novels, it's been Kay patronisingly explaining medical terms and technicalities to the rest of the ensemble, so it was brilliant to see the tables turned and to see Kay getting things dumbed down for her instead - another element that makes her feel much more human.

Whereas the last two novels have been strongly centered on the plot and the crime-fighting, it was good to have a more relaxed title that focused on character development. If Patricia can write the rest of the novels in the series as well as she wrote this one, I'm going to be in for a delightful time - it had the perfect mix of action and characterisation, which is something I love in a novel.
I adored the ruminating on the death penalty - it's such a controversial topic, and it was good to get some of Patricia Cornwell's thoughts on the subject conveyed to us through her character. I also loved the tackling of government corruption: I'm sure it happens much more than any of us are aware, so making Ronnie Joe's murder victim the governor's ex-girlfriend added a personal agenda to the matter that also gave us food for thought on what we would do in that situation. This was a novel that really made me think about what I would do differently, or if I agreed with what the characters decided, and I enjoyed it all the more for that.
The only reason it wasn't perfect was because it was another killer getting away, which means we've now had two unsolved cases and two solved with the deaths of the perpetrators. I might be old-fashioned, but I really do want to see someone reprimanded and brought to justice, rather than just killed or on the run. Maybe that will happen with the next installment.

Once again, my apologies for taking so long to complete the trial of 'Cruel and Unusual', but the trial of 'The Body Farm' should not be this delayed. Thank you for continuing on with me on this journey through Patricia Cornwell's bibliography and Kay Scarpetta's life. 

Sunday, 16 August 2015

The Trial of 'All That Remains' by Patricia Cornwell (Kay Scarpetta #3)

*This review will contain spoilers*

This is my first time reading the third installment in the Kay Scarpetta series, so this review is not clouded with any prior judgments as my previous two reviews may have been.
The novel starts with the phone ringing at Kay Scarpetta's house on a beautiful August morning. It's Detective Marino, calling to inform her that a fifth couple have gone missing, expected dead. Over the past two and a half years, four couples have gone missing and have been found dead months later - discovered by hunters in the woods, when their bodies have already partially skeletonised and almost completely decomposed. Due to this, Kay has had to write off the cause of death as inconclusive on all eight of the bodies, so with this fifth couple she goes in all guns blazing. However, it's not as simple as that, because Deborah - the missing female - is the daughter of Pat Harvey, the National Drug Policy Director and one of the most powerful women in the United States.
Due to Pat's high position and personal interest, she interferes in the case regularly, putting Kay in a terrible position by begging her for more information about her daughter's death. Kay hides away from all press, ignoring everyone's phone calls, while Pat gets more riled up about feeling stonewalled. After her daughter's body is discovered and no one will inform her of the cause of death, she makes a damning press conference announcement - she believes the serial killer is a member of the CIA, and the CIA and the FBI have taken it upon themselves to cover up the crimes and protect their own.
As time goes on and the case looks less and less likely to be solved, Kay gets suspicious of everyone around her: well, apart from Marino. Benton Wesley has been ignoring her calls and withholding evidence from her - such as the discovery of playing cards at each of the crime scenes, leading to the belief that the killings are military related - so she appears at his house to sit him down and get information about him, awkwardly turning up at the same time as he's receiving a visit from her ex, Mark James.
Meanwhile, Kay discovers a cold case from eight years ago - the double-murder of two students, Elizabeth and Jill. The murders are near identical: the shoes and socks are missing from the victims, while their cars were discovered abandoned miles away from their bodies. There were no playing cards at the scene of the crime, but the injuries were all mostly flesh wounds, meaning that the cause of death could also match. But how does a one off murder from eight years ago link with a series of murders still occurring now?
Furthermore, on top of all that's already going on, Abby Turnball, the spunky reporter from 'Postmortem', gets back in touch, as she's writing an article series about the killings and needs to interview some people in Richmond, so it's a great excuse to see her old friend Kay. Abby believes the FBI have been following her - getting a tail on her, tapping her phone lines and hacking in to her computer - to discover what information she may have unearthed about the crimes. Due to Abby's paranoia and increasingly erratic behaviour, she has been fired from her elusive position as police reporter at The New York Times, causing her to move in with Kay temporarily while she attempts to get her life back on track.
One night, after Abby and Kay go out for a meal together, they get asked for directions by a suspicious man in a dark car, and partly due to Abby's paranoia they write down the license plate number. Things don't add up - the plates are for a dark brown car, but the car that they were approached by was most definitely charcoal grey. After tracking down the owner of the dark brown car, it's revealed that the plates were switched, making the grey cars behaviour even more confusing. Kay is determined to find the car again and, after retracing their steps for the best part of a day, they find the car and the driver - a Steven Spurrier. Spurrier has a clean record: he was discharged from the navy after four months due to the death of his father, and has owned a little bookshop ever since. There's no reason to suspect that he would be the killer, but due to his unusual nighttime behaviour and the fact that two of his victims could have been patrons of his store, things escalate rather quickly over the last fifty pages of the novel, culminating in two deaths and a near fatal gunshot wound.

In the previous two Kay Scarpetta novels, I've had two major complaints: 1) that we don't get to interact with the killers and 2) the killers always end up dead. Thankfully, 'All That Remains' veers away from the first rule, even if the second rule is still holding fast at this point in time. Because Kay and Abby stumble across Spurrier (which is a tad contrived, but believable enough if the guy has been cruising round looking for couples for nearly a decade) we get to experience the frustration of the team as they attempt to find evidence that he's the killer and are left disappointed again and again because of how careful the guy is. Yes, it was irritating that they couldn't find anything to link him solidly to all of the couples being murdered, but it felt more realistic because of that - you hear all the time about police having a main suspect but being able to pin the crime to them successfully.
Because of this, I thought the last fifty to one hundred pages were absolutely flawless. There wasn't too much going on, the investigation was focused and it was narrowed down completely.
The same cannot be said for the rest of the story though. Because Kay has no idea on the cause of death, it's up in the air for a long time - could it be strangulation? Stabbing? Or could all of the couples be drug addicts, meeting up with dealers for their next fix and taking a bad batch? There's too many possibilities, too many different scenarios discussed, and it feels as though we're being drowned in a thousand plot choices as though this was a choose your own adventure. I understand that cases often get like this: there will be a favourite suspicion or theory, but there will also be the less likely ones that still merit discussion. That's okay in real life, but in a novel it just feels like a bit too much.
There were some things that I appreciated. Bringing in intuit/psychic Hilda Ozimek brought an extremely different element to the novel, and the fact that they didn't have her giving solid answers about the cases meant that it didn't feel like a get out of jail free card from Patricia. She knew where her story was going, so had the sense of mind to allude to it rather than giving any solid answers - this scene really kept the audience on its toes, and I wish it could have been longer.
I loved the reappearance of Abby! She's one of the more exciting minor characters, and her friendship with Kay (exemplified beautifully in their detective moments) is heart-warming and inspiring, making me want to meet up with friends and make the most of life. Towards the end of the novel she definitely starts to focus too much on her career, as she gets withdrawn from life and makes really stupid decisions, which disappoints me. I wasn't shocked by her death, because I think any character that gets close to Kay is going to be in danger, but I was surprised by the fact that she willingly visited a suspected murderer's house alone - she's been a reporter for the majority of her life and should have known that it wasn't worth the risk.
The reappearance of Mark was also nice, but it was bittersweet that they had separated in the time that passed between 'Body of Evidence' and this installment. Kay and Mark still obviously love each other, but because of how busy Kay was with this case the relationship wasn't explored as much as it potentially could have been. This is a brilliant thing: instead of trying to make every book have a strong romance storyline in it, the fact that Mark popped in and popped out again was reminiscent to real life, because people do have a lot more important things going on than worrying about fixing a romance. I wouldn't mind if he reappeared in more of the future novels, because I think the dynamic between them is brilliantly written and not at all irritating (as it can be with some, if not most, couples in crime novels).
The development of Marino's character? Flawless! Getting him to open up about the demise of his thirty year marriage - to a plump, yet seemingly pleasant, woman called Doris - was touching, as we haven't seen any of his personal life in any part of the start of the series. The scene between him and Kay, in which Kay is attempting to lecture him to get his life back on track, is extremely easy to relate to - we all have friends that we want to tell to pull themselves together, and it's a testament to how strong their personal relationship is that Marino puts up with her completely tearing him apart. It'll be interesting to see whether Marino and Doris restore their relationship in future novels, or whether we'll get to see Marino attempting to play the dating game for the first time in three decades.

I think one of the reasons I enjoyed this novel so much was because it was a first read. If I re-read it, I might feel as though I can get to terms with the plot and appreciate it more fully, but I won't be learning about the characters for the first time so I think the charm would be lost on me. 
Most of the positive aspects of this novel were definitely character based. Because the plot was so busy, it was nice to spend time getting to know the characters and seeing them interact with each other, because it was a relief from the constant bombardment of information, misinformation and potential leads. I enjoy cerebral leads, but when there's so much happening all at once that I feel I need to put the book down to get to grips with the events - well, that's just too in your face for me.
It's still annoying that the murderers keep getting murdered before we can see them questioned and get their motives, but hopefully that will change over the next few installments. I took a lot more time on this one because of needing to get my head around all of the constant goings on, so I'm hoping the next book isn't going to be a serial killing across the decades journey. This felt like quite an epic novel, with the discovery of the linked cold cases and the scope of different suspects considered, but I don't think the length of the novel allowed for the effect that Patricia was going for - it would have needed to be about another hundred pages in length to feel properly developed and less crowded. 
This book would have been perfect for me if it hadn't been convoluted, so I'm hoping Patricia's writing might slim down in the following installments - if she could word things more succinctly, or explain terms straight away without needing to get the characters to prompt at explanation, it might feel as though everything was running much more smoothly. However, even with those aspects this is still the Patricia Cornwell book I've enjoyed most so far in this series, and I'm looking forward to the fourth book already.

Just a quick note to the writer of the synopsis (of my edition, at least) before I finish. Mentioning a killer 'leaving just one tantalizing clue' when he actually leaves four or five does not sell your book, it will just make an audience feel cheated when they realise it's more complicated than that. I'd say that the tantalising clues were the unbranded cigarettes, the missing shoes and socks, the playing cards, the white fibres on the car seats and, despite only being revealed in the last page, the CIA gas card. There's quite a lot of clues in this novel that confuse the investigators and the press - it'll perplex the audience if they think they're only meant to be tantalised by one of them. 

Thursday, 6 August 2015

The Trial of 'Body of Evidence' by Patricia Cornwell (Kay Scarpetta #2)

*This review will contain spoilers* 

The second Kay Scarpetta novel starts off in a wildly different manner than 'Postmortem', the debut novel in the series. Beginning with a prologue, we read two letters written by a Beryl Madison and addressed to a mysterious 'M'. Beryl discusses her fear of someone coming into her room while she is asleep and the fact that she doesn't want to return to Richmond, painting an image of a woman scared out of her skin.
When the main bulk of the story starts, it's evident why Beryl was so scared: on the night that she returned to Richmond, she was brutally slain at her home. Bloodstains mark the walls and floor throughout her home, as she had attempted to escape from the knife-wielding killer. However, Beryl had a state of the art burglar alarm system that she had reset after inviting her murderer into her home, so questions abound as to why she would have let him into her house when she was so terrified of this exact possibility.
Beryl Madison was an author and, as a young girl,was mentored by Pulitzer Prize winner Cary Harper. As details emerge that Beryl's most recent project was an autobiography, questions circulate as to whether Cary could be her murderer - did things happen in her youth that it's in his best interest to cover up? This situation is made even more likely when it's revealed that Cary had a contract with Beryl forcing her into silence, which she has broken by deciding to write her memoir. However, when Cary also turns up dead - his head bashed in after returning from a night out at his local pub - everything goes up into the air once more. Following Cary's death, Sterling Harper - his sister - commits suicide, but it takes them a while to learn how (due to the similarities between dextromethorphan and levomethorphan), and her suicide is followed by the suicide of Al Hunt, a car wash attendant who met Beryl a couple of times while she was alive. Al was a psychiatric patient, so there's a question as to whether he could have been the killer, but when his alibi is solid things take another confusing turn. Before his suicide, Al discusses an old friend - Frankie - with Kay, telling her some rather gruesome stories, and this gets Kay thinking there could be more to this connection than meets the eye.
With Beryl's agent putting pressure on Kay to find the missing manuscript or risk getting sued, Kay takes leave from her office and starts attempting to investigate and question people who could be involved. Knowing that Al was a psychiatric patient, she starts off at Valhalla - the hospital where he was interred - and after discovering there was a fellow patient called Frank, Kay puts two and two together and solves the murder pretty easily. Frankie was a paranoid schizophrenic whose mother turned up dead a couple of years ago, and while they can't find him or a connection between him and Beryl it's pretty much accepted that he was her murderer.
Frankie doesn't appear directly until the last few pages of the novel (again, in a similar way to 'Postmortem') and he doesn't last very long after he appears, being shot to pieces by Kay in her entry hall. Frankie worked as a bag attendant at the local airport, which is where he first interacted with Beryl Madison. After becoming obsessed with her, he stole her bag off of the baggage claim, then took it to her home later that night - this being the reason that she trusted him enough to let him into her home. Frankie steals Beryl's manuscript after brutally murdering her, then proceeds to kill the people closest to her (namely Cary Harper, who it is revealed molested Beryl consistently throughout her teenage years). After fixating on Kay, who develops a strong bond with Beryl following her murder, Frankie pulls the same stunt on her - stealing her bag from the baggage claim - but because she works out what is going on (after letting him into her house) she takes him out without many problems.

I really hope the synopsis I've written above makes some sense, because for the majority of this novel I was just wandering around in a dazed and confused state. It seems pretty obvious that Cary Harper is Beryl's murderer - then he turns up dead. So it must have been her agent! But there's nothing to say that he would have been in Richmond at the time of her death, and if he'd murdered her he wouldn't be making such a fuss about finding her manuscript. So it must be Al Hunt, the car wash attendee - the killer leaves lots of car carpet fibres on her body, and he would have been covered in them! ...But no, it's not him, because he was out with his parents when both murders occurred. So it must be Frankie, his old friend from the psychiatric hospital, who just happened to have both dealt with Beryl Madison's bags at the luggage claim and bumped into her at his old friend's car wash. Yeah, that makes some sense.
I don't know if I'm getting cranky about the Kay Scarpetta novels because the killers are being pulled out of thin air, but I wasn't too happy about how this one played out either. In 'Postmortem', the killer randomly appears at the end after not being mentioned at all throughout the novel, and while Frankie got some mentions it still didn't feel like a proper murder mystery. For example, they make a big deal about Frankie having a stutter, but Beryl Madison never mentioned this while reporting his threatening phone calls. Similarly, when Kay first receives a phone call from him, she doesn't mention his stutter either, but after they're told that he has one all of his speech is wr-wri-written l-li-like th-this. It feels convoluted and badly crafted: if someone has a stutter while nervous or under stress, make it a consistent character trait rather than something that pops up too late in the book to make any sense.
Furthermore, I just think there were too many loose ends for this to be considered a great story. Yes, they were all wrapped up by the end but because they were kept dangling throughout the book it was hard to keep track of everything. Sparacino - Beryl's evil and corrupt agent - is mentioned consistently throughout the first half of the novel but then there's a hundred page section where his name doesn't crop up at all; this meant that I'd completely forgotten about him and the story felt disjointed. The same can be said about Mark James, Kay's ex-boyfriend, who she ruminated upon regularly but who didn't have that much of an effect on the plot.
Because the first novel focused so much on character development, this second installment is much more plot based - the only expansion we get on Kay's character is the introduction of Mark. He has a rather elusive back story and there's a lot of debate surrounding his character (is he a spy? An agent? A lawyer? A criminal?) and while that gets resolved by the end it takes a long time and it makes it very difficult to care - he just feels like a poor excuse to write in a romantic interest and add some more tension into the story. If Mark doesn't crop up again in future novels I'm going to feel rather cheated - the novel ends on him inviting Kay to Aspen and declaring his love for her, so it feels as though there needs to be more reference to him; if he's not seen again, it's going to mean he was a completely unnecessary inclusion.
As well as Kay not being developed much, Detective Marino's character is also left as he was in the first book, with the exception of some much more abrasively homophobic comments. None of the other characters are expanded upon because of the fact that most of them end up dead. Rose, the secretary at Kay's office, frequently drops off telephone messages, and Benton Wesley from the first novel crops up again - other than these two we have new characters being added consistently and being left undeveloped, so it makes it hard to care about the group of characters as a whole.
I will admit, I did cheer a little bit when Kay shot and killed Frankie at the end of the novel - it was good to see her actually being a badass, rather than just ruminating on the fact that she has a gun and could use it if the situation arose. However, because the killer was murdered at the end of 'Postmortem' and we've now had another one shot down, it does feel like the apprehension rate of the Richmond PD must be pretty low - it would be good to get the why they did it and how from the killers, rather than just the other characters speculating. At the moment it just feels like there's a formula Patricia Cornwell is sticking to, so I hope she shakes it up over the next installments.

I can't remember much about 'Body of Evidence' from the first time I read it - in fact, I could only remember Sterling Harper's death. This meant I was rather surprised when Cary Harper was murdered: he was definitely my number one suspect. However, from the first chapter I kept thinking "it's likely that Beryl left her manuscript with someone she trusted down in Key West - someone should go and check it out". Did they? Eventually. But if Kay had just headed down to Key West earlier in the novel, all of this could have been resolved much more quickly, so it did feel rather unnecessary.
I still enjoy Patricia Cornwell's writing. The little scientific explanation of the different between dextromethorphan and levomethorphan definitely intrigued me, which is something that science doesn't normally do - you can tell that Patricia knows what she's talking about in those situations. However, I can imagine that that would get on some people's nerves - a lot of people don't want to feel as though they're taking chemistry lessons while reading a novel. Some of Kay's annoying traits from the first novel had dissipated (she complained about men a lot less, and she didn't fade out from conversations as frequently) which was a positive thing; hopefully she will continue to develop into a more likable character.
On the whole, this book ended up disappointing me. This was a re-read so, again, that could be why, but it just felt like it was a whole lot of nothing. I'm still continuing on with my Patricia Cornwell read-a-thon, but I'm just hoping that the next novel, 'All That Remains', will interest me more because I haven't read it yet - it will be the first book in this read-a-thon that I'm going into with no previous knowledge or expectations. I still feel as though we should get a least some interaction with the killer before they turn up and get shot to death, because then we can make up our minds for ourselves rather than just being told "oh yes this man is the killer". It also feels as though the killers need to stop getting as obsessed with Kay - for two in a row to be giving her freaky phone calls and appearing at her house to murder her just seems a little bit unnecessary. 

Saturday, 1 August 2015

July book haul

The main section of my book haul is over on my other blog, Everything Alyce. This is purely my crime book haul.


Rob was kind enough to tweet me and let me know when both of his books went on daily deal for 99p, and because I'd considered purchasing them in the past it was about time that I did that. 


I already own quite a few Ben Aaronovitch novels, but I just haven't gotten around to reading them yet. Out of these three books I'm most intrigued by the premise behind 'Last Breath' - the novel has a blind protagonist who can touch a body and view the last eighteen seconds before death.

I have all of Karin Slaughter's novels so far, so when I heard it was time for the release of 'Pretty Girls' I had to get this beautiful hardcover version.

My local The Works is having a closing down sale, so I managed to buy a large batch of Ann Cleeves novels for a mere fifteen pound. I will definitely be putting a few of these on trial soon - I've been considering reading some of her novels for a while, but haven't yet gotten around to it.

So that's sixteen crime novels purchased this month. You can expect to see all of these books going on trial in The Courtroom eventually, even if it takes me a while to get around to them. 

Thursday, 30 July 2015

The Trial of 'Postmortem' by Patricia Cornwell (Kay Scarpetta #1)

*This review will contain spoilers* 

'Postmortem' was Patricia Cornwell's debut novel, released back in 1990. Reading this 25 years on, is it still relevant or is it quite obviously dated?

The novel begins with the murder of Lori Petersen - the fourth victim of a serial killer who is tormenting the Richmond area. The murderer's MO is exactly the same as in the first three cases; he ties his victims up, rapes them and kills them, then disappears without a trace. Dr. Kay Scarpetta is shaken up by Lori's murder because she was a medical student, and Kay struggles to get past the similarities in their lives up until this point.
Throughout the first half of the novel, a lot of time is spent introducing the characters. Kay gets the majority of the screen time as the protagonist, which is to be expected. A serious work-orientated woman, Kay has her niece, Lucy, staying with her at the time of the fourth murder and she ponders whether it's fair on the child to keep her around at such a trying time. Kay has never had a family of her own, much to the chagrin of her mother, and though she cares for Lucy she finds it difficult to juggle the position of surrogate mother with her hectic work life. A highly introspective character, she often finds herself losing her train of thought, and will fade out in the middle of a conversation just to be jolted back to awareness. 
As well as Kay's development, there is also a lot of focus on the character of Detective Marino - the chief investigator in charge of the case. Marino is a hard-ass: having worked in New York he knows his stuff, but he's also very affronted by the idea of being bossed around by a woman, making the dynamic between him and Kay frictional at least. Marino automatically assumes Lori Petersen's husband, Matt, is the murderer, and he quickly gets his mindset focused on proving his suspicions. 
Other than these two characters, there's quite a large supporting cast: Abby Turnball the scrappy journalist, Margaret the computer programmer, Wingo the gay autopsy technician, Rose the receptionist and Bill, Kay's romantic interest. These characters aren't fully-rounded, just popping up in the text as and when they are needed, but as this series is so long I'm assuming we will get more information and back story from them in the coming novels.
The second half of the novel focuses more on the discovery of the serial killer, culminating in a fast-paced action scene in the last twenty pages of the novel. The killer is discovered to be one Roy McCorkle, a twenty-seven year old man who worked as a 911 operator and dispatcher. Roy suffers from Maple Syrup Urine Disease, which causes a build-up of amino acids in the body and leads to the sufferer having a syrupy sickly smell surrounding them when they are under physical or emotional stress. Due to the nature of his crimes, McCorkle was stressed constantly while performing his ritualistic murders, and after dumping his jumpsuit in a nearby trash can the disease seems to be the only possible explanation for the scent emanating from it. Using his disease against him, Kay and Abby work together to craft a newspaper article that will coax the murderer to make a mistake, and that mistake is realised when McCorkle attempts to murder Kay and is shot down by Detective Marino. Case closed. 

The first time I read 'Postmortem', I absolutely loved it. It was the first book of this genre, the first book of this magnitude, that I had ever experienced and it hooked me from the first page, giving me nightmares every night while I was reading it. 
Now, it could be because this is a re-read, or because I have read a lot more crime fiction since the first time I read this novel, but I didn't find it nearly as effective the second time around. I couldn't remember any of the plot twists and turns, so I didn't have the ending spoiled for me, but it just didn't seem as well written as I once believed that it was. 
Take, for example, Kay. Constantly fading out in the middle of conversations: 'I'd been scarcely aware of his pulling off the road and parking' and 'I suddenly realized Marino was talking to me' being just two minor examples of a constantly recurring character flaw. Having a protagonist ruminate on their inner thoughts isn't a bad thing - in fact, it's probably necessary when we're all trying to work out who the serial killer could be - but if it interrupts with the flow of the storytelling and makes it feel as though we're stopping and starting constantly, it's not a positive thing. Similarly, Kay has very ingrained depreciating thoughts about men, meaning that at a few times in this novel it feels like she's taking criticism as being because she's a woman rather than because she might have messed up, which seems a bit incomprehensible in the face of some of the accusations thrown at her. 
As well as an annoying lead character, the discovery of the serial killer is a massive disappointment. Marino is convinced that the murderer is Matt Petersen, then he believes it may be Bill Boltz the boyfriend, but when it's eventually revealed that it's a character we've had no interaction with in the past it feels like a cheap escape clause. For someone who likes a cerebral read, trying to spot the red herrings against the genuine clues throughout the novel, to have no chance of guessing who performed the crime was a huge disappointment. It also feels as though the two previous suspects aren't investigated as thoroughly as they could be. At the end of the novel, we receive the information that Matt Petersen passed a polygraph, but because we don't get the information at the time it feels as though it's a loose end throughout. Similarly, Marino questions the likelihood of Bill being the murderer, but it never goes further than sheer speculation (despite the fact that he quickly goes on an impromptu holiday across country) and it would have been interesting to see that developed more thoroughly. 
Something else that hampered my enjoyment of the novel was that you could definitely feel how dated it was. I appreciated that in my first reading, but this time it felt clunky and the fact that DNA usage in crimes was only in the first stages means that if this book was written now the crime would definitely be solved a lot faster than it was. This book is a complete Zeitgeist to the early nineties: people smoke everywhere, there are a lot of inappropriate terms thrown around about the gay community (such as 'Maybe he was having an HIV test done on the sly. Good God, don't let him have AIDs' proving exactly how ignorant even the medical community were towards gay people two decades ago) and a lot of language that is verging on racist. It's definitely interesting to get in-depth information about the medical procedures that they're going through, but to get so much information about dumb monitors and the SQL database... Nowadays, computers are a lot more up-to-date and more people know common knowledge about them, so it seems a bit unnecessary on reflection.  

I enjoyed 'Postmortem' the first time I read it, but this time around it fell flat. That might be because it's a re-read, so I can't unconditionally state that if this was my first read I wouldn't have loved it. I recommend reading this novel because it's so famous - Patricia Cornwell is a household name, and this is the book that launched her career, so if you haven't read it before it's not something that you should just pass over. However, at this point in time I'm feeling rather disappointed, and I'm definitely apprehensive about continuing on with my Kay Scarpetta marathon (even though I'm obviously going to follow through!). 
I'm sentencing this book to a three star review. 

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Welcome to The Courtroom

Today is the year anniversary of my main blog, Everything Alyce, so to celebrate I'm launching this new project - The Courtroom.
The Courtroom is going to be a secondary blog, featuring reviews for crime and thriller novels. I decided my other blog was getting too crowded, and I wanted to start reading more crime and thriller novels, so this felt like the perfect answer to both of my problems.
To start this blog, I'm going to do a special series of posts; I own all of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta books, and I've been looking for an excuse to read them for a very long time, so as a launch for this blog I'm going to write a review of one of them every week (which, yes, means that this will be going on for 22 weeks!)
I hope you'll stick around and see where The Courtroom goes from here. I'll still be posting Young Adult book reviews, cover reveals and blog tours over on Everything Alyce, but I'm going to enjoy having a bit more freedom with my reading and getting to fully explore another genre.