- The Washington Times - Friday, December 10, 2010

PORT MORTUARY
By Patricia Cornwell
Putnam, $27.95 512 pages

Flybots, neuroterrorists, synthetic biology, a packbot called MORT designed for body removal - sound familiar? Of course. It’s Patricia Cornwell, back with her latest package of forensic horrors.

And apparently right on time, in view of a newspaper story recently published about military enthusiasm for fighting war with robots. It pointed out that at a “Robotics Rodeo” at an Army training school, out was marched an array of spooky metal creatures that not only can protect soldiers but who never panic and whose unblinking eyes are never distracted.It must have been Kay Scarpetta’s kind of place. Sometimes you get the impression that Ms. Cornwell’s medical examiner extraordinaire is more comfortable with machines than fallible humans. And Dr. Scarpetta’s favorite person, it would seem, is her brilliant young niece rather than her husband, a retired FBI man who deals with remarkable patience with his wife, who uses a battering ram logic to prove her points.

According to Ms. Cornwell, this is the first time she has presented Dr. Scarpetta in the first person with the presumably unintended result of making her even more of an ice queen. She is the kind of person for whom a glass is always half empty and she operates in a world awash in the suspicious and the sinister. Sometimes you wonder how her husband, Benton, puts up with it and why there aren’t any examples of the domestic bliss she mentions almost as an afterthought. Benton doesn’t seem to be quite up to Kay, but then who would be? There is an accusatory note to much of what she says, as though she prefers to deal in interrogation rather than conversation.


It is, of course, true that she deals in the gruesome and the grim. No details are left uncovered when Dr. Scarpetta casts her cold eye on an even colder corpse, especially if it is the victim of foul play. Her career and her writing hopscotches from one mystifying acronym to another in any X-ray of her career. In her latest investigation she is wrenched dripping from a shower after six months of work as a RadPath or forensic radiologic pathologist at Dover Air Force Base and “the bleakness of handling death daily on behalf of the U.S. Government.”

She is an expert on 3-D imaging radiology, computerized tomology and the science of virtual autopsies as an improvement on traditional postmortem examination, made possible by DARPA, or Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

She says of herself: “I’m an expert in violence and death. I’m at war with suffering and pain. Somehow I always end up in charge or to blame.” It sounds like an epitaph for her lifestyle and she suffers throughout most of the book with murders in which a body bleeds after death, and new technology that can create miniature monsters like the flybot that understands voice commands and can kill.

Dr. Scarpetta returns to what had been her office to find it disrupted by another presence and rendered no more reassuring by the cautious behavior of her husband. In between, she is haunted by the memory of two murdered women in the morgue at Cape Town and her own feelings of guilt that she had enabled the killings.

In a book devoted to cold analysis of her own failings, only a dog seems to evoke human warmth in Dr. Scarpetta, who exists in a desert of death. Sock is the lost and abused greyhound who witnessed a murder and winds up rescued by a woman who needs him more than he needs her. Sock brings out in Dr. Scarpetta a warmth and compassion that she almost never shows, even to her husband.

Perhaps because she can trust Sock, a sad animal grateful for the knowledge that he can place his trust in this woman who has appeared out of nowhere to save him from a dreary death. It is Sock whom Dr. Scarpetta pets and pampers and fusses about what he should be eating. It is Sock whom she worries about, almost more than about her husband. As solutions to military mayhem fall into place as they can do only in Cornwell books, there is this glimpse of canine comfort in the life of a woman perhaps too devoted to death.

She is certainly good at her job, but there are times in this overlong and very complicated book when Dr. Scapetta seems overwhelmed by her chosen profession, and who wouldn’t be. She is a brilliant but intimidating woman, which perhaps is why she finds such comfort in adopting and consoling a sad greyhound. Sock asks for nothing except a little comfort toward the end of a brutal life, and perhaps that is what Kay Scarpetta is best qualified to give.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.