- - Thursday, April 21, 2016


By Patricia Cornwell

Morrow, $28.99, 480 pages

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He is a vintage teddy bear named Mr. Pickle and he has the distinction of being the only cheerful note in a book which is a sea of melodrama.

Patricia Cornwell tends to walk on the dark side and she has outdone herself in a thriller that goes on for almost 400 pages and is preoccupied with violence and terror. Dr Kay Scarpetta, the forensics expert who is the author’s leading character, operates in a world of remembered misery that includes searing pain from a knife attack on herself. Even Mr. Pickle, her long ago gift to her 10-year-old niece is a battered bear, and Lucy, the niece, is as wild and twisted as she is brilliant. However Carrie is the wicked witch of the plot and Ms Cormwell pulls out all the stops when it comes to her.

Describing Carrie on a video, she writes, “The face is young and strongly pretty, but it was always the eyes that gave her away. They reminded me of pinwheels. They seem to spin as her aberrant thoughts surge behind him, fueling the evil entity that inhabits her soul. Carrie Grethen is a cancer.”

And Dr. Scarpetta is just getting started on the topic of her nemesis Carrie whom she accuses of trying to kill her with a spear gun in 100 feet of water. Her niece Lucy, who apparently was at some point involved in a lesbian relationship with the awful Carrie, tells her, “She was treating you like a speared fish.” Carrie also leans toward torture of a young man whom she is slowly electrocuting, having chained him to iron rings in a wall while he shrieks in agony. And dangling barely within his reach is “a malignant mobile comprised of a small green teddy bear.”

Mr. Pickle is back, and looking less cuddly in the midst of bare copper wires. Scenes like this distract the reader from a plot that involves the murder of a Hollywood mogul’s daughter, preceded by killings of police and the bottom of the sea in the Bermuda Triangle, hideous presents in the back of a truck and sinister videos drawn from Lucy’s past that are intended to damage the mind of Dr. Scarpetta and her family, including her long suffering husband. She may be an expert at poking around in dead bodies and analyzing who died and why and how, but Dr. Scarpetta is not relaxing to be around, or even to read about. She seems to think and talk in dramatic italics. Her writing style is captured by such lines as “Thunder claps, water hisses and splashes around his big black leather sneakers.”

Dr. Scarpetta is assigned to a death scene while she is still convalescing from what she believes to be a Carrie assault when she receives a video link in her text messages that seems to be a lurid account of what was happening between her niece Lucy and Carrie 20 years earlier. Understandably Dr. Scarpetta is “confused worried and not knowing where to turn.” Even her husband and others whom she trusts become objects of suspicion.

There are few paragraphs in the book that are not full of dread predictions of what has just happened, and even worse, what is coming next. Dr. Scarpetta is surrounded by fear of the terrors lurking around her and to make things worse, many of her colleagues don’t believe her. She becomes herself an object of suspicion and Lucy, the niece who understands her, has a slender grasp on her own reality.

The diabolical presence of Carrie dominates the book and puts at risk not only Lucy but her tortured aunt and what seems like half the FBI. Terrorism creeps in at one point when the book is already rocking with high tension. Nobody can accuse Ms. Cornwell of understatement and unfortunately her passion for melodrama weakens her dialogue and the movement of her plot. She obviously has thoroughly researched the subjects on which she writes, from forensics and ballistics to victims of advanced trauma. She is now turning her attention to drone technology which may give the reader an idea of what Carrie will be up to next.

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

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