Patricia Cornwell's newest: Scarpetta does death

July 28, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff

"Cause of Death," by Patricia Cornwell. G.P. Putnam's Sons. 352 pages.$25.95.

A regular reader of mysteries must, on occasion, break things off with a perfectly wonderful character. It's the same old story: You grow apart. She wants one thing, you want something else. Perhaps she's just too good for you.

Dr. Kay Scarpetta and I went our separate ways after I read the first four books in Patricia Cornwell's series about the Virginia medical examiner. Scarpetta wanted to venture deeper into thriller territory; I wanted fewer serial killers in my life. The next two books - "The Body Farm" and "From Potter's Field" - went to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, so add Cornwell to my list of exes who have gone on to thrive.

Now comes "Cause of Death," the seventh in the series, and the first to appear since news of Cornwell's $24 million contract for three books. Crime does pay, especially when one can write a slick, fast-moving story that begins with the death of an Associated Press reporter and ends with a white supremacist group taking terrorism to new depths. The book also showcases Cornwell's mania for research and accuracy, whether it's firearms, an AP reporter's salary or the recessive gene trait that allows a woman to detect the odor of cyanide. (I can't vouch for items 1 or 3, but she nailed the reporter's salary.)

Scarpetta remains an intriguing, if humorless character and I was glad to be in her company again. I admire Cornwell for refusing to soften her over the course of the series. This is a woman steeped in death. If she weren't somewhat dour, she'd be loonier than the killers she tracks. But sometimes she affects me the way Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor affected Washington Redskin John Riggins. "Lighten up, Kay baby," I find myself thinking. "You have got to get over this whole woman-in-a-man's-world thing."

Scarpetta does love her work, and Cornwell loves describing it. Here is Cornwell writing about the medical examiner's encounter with a dead diver: "Languidly, he twisted and drifted on the end of his tether, rubber-sheathed arms out like a sleepwalker's as my motion pulled him after me. I let him drift close, and he nudged and bumped me some more, but now I was no longer afraid because I was no longer surprised. It was as if he were trying to get my attention or wanted to dance with me through the hellish darkness of the river that had claimed him."

There is no doubt in my mind that Cornwell is at the top of her game. She, like Scarpetta, is a woman in a man's world - the thriller genre - and I find her success heartening. Regret lingers that this is the game she has chosen. When Dr. Kay Scarpetta is on the case, the world is a place full of random evil where no one is safe. This happens to be the world I'm looking to escape when I select my beach reads.

Laura Lippman is a feature writer for The Sun who writes frequently about publishing. Her first novel, a mystery set in Baltimore, will be published by Avon early next year.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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