A fine tale, but the devil is in the details

September 08, 1994|By Susanne Trowbridge | Susanne Trowbridge,Special to The Sun

For every avid reader of Patricia Cornwell's mysteries -- and considering that her books routinely make the best-seller lists, there are plenty of them -- there are undoubtedly numerous others who react to her work with a fervent "Eww, gross!" After all, Ms. Cornwell's heroine, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, is a medical examiner, and the author doesn't skimp on the gory details of autopsies, rates of decomposition and brutal methods of murder.

Even by the standards of her first four novels, however, "The Body Farm" is almost aggressively stomach-turning. There's a fabulous thriller in here, but reaching it involves making it through 100-odd pages of awfully rough stuff.

Dr. Scarpetta is investigating the killing of an 11-year-old girl, Emily Steiner, in a quiet North Carolina town, and she suspects that notorious serial killer Temple Gault is behind the crime. Gault narrowly eluded capture in last year's "Cruel and Unusual"; like Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris' "Silence of the Lambs," he's a fearsomely resourceful, intelligent sociopath.

The doctor's unpleasant tasks include exhuming Emily's corpse to scrutinize a strange mark, and examining the body of an FBI agent who died under rather unusual circumstances immediately after returning to North Carolina from a consultation in Quantico. The description of the post-exhumation autopsy is undoubtedly authentic, but that doesn't make it any less revolting.

If I hadn't been reviewing "The Body Farm," I probably would have tossed the book aside at that point. But after that initial burst of gore, Ms. Cornwell delivers a tight, exciting thriller that further develops her regular cast of characters.

Kay's niece Lucy, an important presence in most of the books, is now 21, a college student with a summer internship as a computer analyst at the FBI Academy. Dr. Scarpetta, the chief medical examiner of Virginia, is at Quantico working as the consulting forensic pathologist for the Bureau's Investigative Support Unit. Her previous run-in with Temple Gault makes her a natural choice to help investigate the Steiner girl's murder, since the method is nearly identical.

Working in such close proximity to Lucy makes Kay uncomfortably aware of the issues with which her niece struggles. Never a social butterfly, Lucy still prefers the company of computers to that of her peers; the one person the girl does choose to spend time with is an older co-worker named Carrie Grethen, to whom Kay takes "an instant dislike." In addition, Lucy seems to be developing a habit of drinking too much.

Dr. Scarpetta's longtime pal, homicide detective Frank Marino, is also on the case through his involvement with the Bureau's Violent Criminal Apprehension Program. Kay's friendship with Frank sours, however, when she begins an affair with a married FBI agent.

The electrifying hunt for a fiendishly clever killer and the continuing evolution of the series' complex, ambitious characters means that fans of Ms. Cornwell's work will probably not want to miss "The Body Farm," despite the overload of graphic descriptions. Anyone put off by the details of death, needless to say, should pass it by. Ms. Cornwell is a top- notch writer, but ultimately, her fascination with the post-mortem is liable to repel many more readers than it attracts.

Ms. Trowbridge is a writer living in Baltimore.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: The Body Farm

Author: Patricia Cornwell

Publisher: Scribners

Length, price: 320 pages, $23

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