In Richmond, Virginia, young lovers are dying. So far, four couples in the area have disappeared, only to be found months later as skeletal remains. When the daughter of the president's newest "drug czar" vanishes along with her boyfriend, Dr. Kay Scarpetta knows time is short. Following a macabre trail of evidence that ties the present homicides to a grisly crime in the past, Kay must draw upon her own personal resources to track down a murderer who is as skilled at eliminating clues as Kay is at finding them.
Conditioned by my previous experiences with detective novels whenever I begin a Scarpetta book I expect a straightforward mystery, and every time Cornwell crafts a story that's everything but. Oh, there is a mystery alright, but there is also a very strong human element and the more I get to know Kay Scarpetta and her circle the more clearly I see it. It is possible of course that this human element is becoming more prominent, with every consecutive book being more about the people than the crime, the crime being a catalyst for this humanity to manifest itself and provide a macabre backdrop for it. And you know what? I like seeing something more layered than an cold investigation into disappearances and deaths, I like seeing characters stretch themselves, doubt themselves and their friends and colleagues, struggle through life's problems and emerge changed, even just a little bit. I like seeing relationship develop through the mundane things, and Cornwell delivers that every time. In case you're wondering what it is I'm talking about: here Kay doubts her friendship with Abby Turnbull, the reporter she first met in Postmortem, because Abby isn't being particularly straightforward about her involvement in Scarpetta's latest case. It is also in this book that she realizes that the more she works with Marino the more she likes him, despite his unkempt appearance and irritating behavior, and a true friendship begins to emerge. And last but not least there are the frustrations of finding herself in the middle of basically a face-off between the FBI, the DA's office and higher echelons of government. Cornwell uses these situations wonderfully to develop her characters and since they are so significant in the story they become the stage of power plays and the really dramatic scenes.
Politics is big in this book and Cornwell explores the effects of it on people's lives with her usual delicate but firm touch. The potential of a cover-up in her daughter's murder case pushes a prominent politician over the edge and the question of whether she ruined her own career or was helped along the way is a major point of contention in this book. There is also the matter of whether being a public figure at a time like what this politician's family is going through is a blessing or a curse and the reality that there is more than one answer to this question. The fact that Cornwell raises these issues and that everything filters through Kay, the protagonist, makes her a complex individual who navigates a personal and professional maze every day and knows that things are much less straightforward than she would like them to be, a person who regularly thinks about life and people, and not just on a simple day-to-day level.
My only concern with this novel is that if Cornwell continues along the path she is on the politics will grow to dominate the story and while it is a fertile field for character development I would hate to see it happen - politics tend to make things convoluted and much talk about views and positions on issues is not something I enjoy in my fiction. I think she struck a nice balance in this book and hope the next novels don't veer off into a lot of talk and little action.