Under cover of night in Richmond, Virginia, a human monster strikes, leaving a gruesome trail of stranglings that has paralyzed the city. Medical examiner Kay Scarpetta suspects the worst: a deliberate campaign by a brilliant serial killer whose signature offers precious few clues. With an unerring eye, she calls on the latest advances in forensic research to unmask the madman. But this investigation will test Kay like no other, because it's being sabotaged from within and someone wants her dead.
The first time I heard about Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta mysteries was on BBC World Book Club and when the hefty tome containing the first three Scarpetta novels caught my eye at the used book shop I immediately snatched it off the shelf. It waited its turn until this year when I finally settled in to read Postmortem.
One of the first things that struck me, even distracted me somewhat, was how much technology playing a major part in the story dated the novel. Scarpetta talked about diskettes, bringing up information through Basic commands, dialing in to computers via modem and I could hardly believe the time Cornwell was writing about was just over 20 years ago. Seems like much longer considering the leaps and bounds by which technology has advanced since 1990s.
Once I adjusted to the idea of computer systems being a novelty and DNA testing being so new that it was barely used and took forever I was able to appreciate this book for what it is. Did you know it received the Edgar, Creasey, Anthony and Macavity Awards and the French Prix du Roman d'Adventure in a single year? It was revolutionary back then to put a woman in the center of a crime novel and Cornwell did it wonderfully. Kay Scarpetta is intelligent and strong, but at the same time she's vulnerable and sensitive. We see her as the tough Chief Medical Examiner and a loving aunt who makes pizza from scratch, we see her doing her best and feeling insecure because she's one of the few women in a man-dominated world. Things have changed some since then but not all that much and it was refreshing to see a woman who isn't all iron lady.
The supporting cast complemented Scarpetta nicely - a rough around the edges detective with both great instincts and integrity to bring to the table, a little girl so smart she beat the adults at their own game, the perfect suspect or two who... well, I'll leave you to figure that one out on your own.
The characters really made the book for me but the writing was great as well. This is one of those cases where the writer breaks the rules we've heard time and time again (limit adverbs, show don't tell, etc.) and does it in a way that works and actually makes the novel better. As they say, break the rules the right way!
Last but not least when it came time for the big reveal I was just as suprised as everyone else. Cornwell revealed the clues so gradually that I actually felt like I was figuring things out with Scarpetta and Marino and the fact that there wasn't a big explanation at the end and neither was the culprit one of the characters who already made an appearance at the scene made the story much more satisfying. Needless to say I look forward to reading the next book in the volume.