Monday, July 27, 2015

Pickles & Scarpetta | Top 6 Favorite Kay Scarpetta Cases

Ever just look at your bookshelves, spot a series, and find yourself talking to yourself about your love for it?  For five or so minutes, you’re left using your memories to trace and calculate your way through the events that took place in each entry.  You’re throwing your thoughts back to each book’s conclusion and resolution.  You recall your favorite scenes, characters, and plots.  And most of all, you remember the sour ones.  And while you may be all caught up, and awaiting the author’s next release, you get the feeling that you can squeeze a re-read into your TBR just for the hell of it.  Well, that happened recently, as I stared up at my collection (which is very much current, thank you) of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series.

As some of you may or may not know, Patricia Cornwell is known for establishing the forensic thriller literary form with her 1990 debut, Post-mortem. As of now the series is twenty-two books deep, and it’s been a pickle of a ride between (I only started reading the series one hot July night in 2009). But what do I mean by “pickle”? Well, the bad, sketchy, and usually disconnected entries don't overtake the general good and enjoyment you gain.  I say that because there's a lot to say from reading through Scarpetta‘s many crime-stopping endeavors. However, while I have your attention, let’s talk about the pickles; I love to be honest about my feelings all around.

The "pickles"; books 12-17
While the series started in the first-person, via Scarpetta’s medical examiner lens, Cornwell switched to the third throughout books 12-17.  Already creating pushy, series arcing plots that would eventually back her into a corner; she took her readers out of the head of her famed hero and gave us a line of books probably best forgotten.  Well, to be clear, some were a little more memorable than others for their twisted villains alone. Nonetheless, from 2003’s Blow Fly to the final straw of 2009’s The Scarpetta Factor (the absolute worst in the series, and one I never finished), I almost gave up on the game. As I said in posts past, Scarpetta was like the aunt I wish I had.  So for me to have conversations with her from a wide, narrative berth was no fun. 

I didn’t necessarily want to prowl around in the killer’s head space (though sometimes interesting, they were mostly desperate necrotic musings). And, quite frankly, I didn’t want to do the same with the many strong, secondary characters in the series. Speaking of which, that would include Scarpetta’s F.B.I. husband [Benton], her techno-geek niece [Lucy], and her best friend and fellow detective [Marino]. Their roles have flipped and changed over the course of the series, but I was cool with hearing their many transgressions from a length.  And Lucy, being the most obnoxious of the listed trio, only seconded the villains per her chance at a narrative go.

Thankfully, in 2010, Cornwell changed back to first person and back into her series star’s head. And when I tell you that switch came right on time–I mean right on time. However, that doesn’t mean the series fully recovered from those few unrestrained books written in the third. Some of the post-third POV books were hit or miss, as it concerns containing a solidly maintained and operating plot (last year‘s Flesh and Blood wasn't that great at all). Even so, having Scarpetta back in the narrative seat makes a difference.  I love this series because Kay Scarpetta is intelligent, thoughtful, and works for the dead. Something we all have a fascination for, but can only seem to explore from a healthy distance.

Now in stating all that gush and fuss, I want to countdown to my six favorite Scarpetta cases!

6.  Port Mortuary (2010)

This book saved the series for me. That’s no exaggeration. Back in 2010, Cornwell finally published a Scarpetta book exclusively in her protagonist’s first-person perspective. Obviously, that book was Port Mortuary

Now while Cornwell’s POV switched back was just enough to please me, Port Mortuary actually had an interesting set up. The book throws readers back to the beginning of Scarpetta’s career, where she accepted a scholarship from the Air Force. Said scholarship assisted her with paying for her medical school debt, while giving her long-forgotten ties to the US military. During her scholarship, Scarpetta found herself involved in a hate crime case consisting of two Americans killed in South Africa. Through a series of examined circumstances and commands given by her superior, Scarpetta becomes a part of a cover-up that slowly comes back to haunt her in the now. Meanwhile, she’s training at the Dover Air Force Base and facing the murder of a young man who seemingly dropped dead from cardiac arrhythmia.

The book is bloated, bluffed, and even tedious at times. The truth is since switching POV’s, Cornwell seems to have weakened some of her initial focus.  Sometimes her books come across as a gumbo of featured topics, with drawn out scenarios and conversations.  Tasty, but weirdly missing the right portions of seasoning. Nevertheless, Port Mortuary was welcoming for the true Scarpetta fan.  And it was perfect in its delivery, as it re-introduced readers to Scarpetta through her past mistakes and consequences.  That, I appreciate.  So I savor this milestone in the series.  

5.  Red Mist (2011)

Initially, I had 1992s All That Remains pegged in this spot. While that still remains true, I thought it would be a little unfair when the rest of this list is pre-third-person POV books. I have to give these latest, surviving Scarpetta entries a chance. And I most certainly enjoyed 2011’s Red Mist. It continued with the welcoming, reunion-like energy newly produced in the pervious book, Port Mortuary.

Red Mist finds Scarpetta investigating the murder of her long-gone former deputy chief, Jack Fielding (you regulars out there knew this guy). Her investigation leads her to Savannah, Georgia–specifically the Georgia Prison for Women. It’s here that she meets Kathleen Lawler, a convicted sex offender and mother of a cleverly rancorous serial killer. Scarpetta's link is Lawler and Fielding were once in a relationship. With information from Kathleen, Scarpetta then irons out the connections to track Fielding’s killer. And there’s a ton–a ton–more uncovered than Scarpetta anticipated.

Hands down, Red Mist was better than Port Mortuary. Maybe it was because I loved how it billowed around past characters, long memories, intimate secrets, and repercussions. I felt Scarpetta shined even more post her return. Her conversations with Kathleen still stands out as the highlight of this book (who doesn’t love listening to a fictional convict deliver his/her psychotic logic), along with Scarpetta reading her diary entries. Red Mist had this very “different women/contrasting choices” flavor to it.  Dare I label it a theme–I'd say it was a great one. The book was also dusted with subjects regarding families, and sympathy for individuals who suffer by another's choices. Even in regard to the pain suffered by the villain. Though just desserts were necessary and served toward the individual.  Nonetheless, in retrospect, I believe Red Mist belongs here after all.

4. Post-Mortem (1990)

Gotcha! You probably though Scarpetta’s debut would be number one. Well, it isn’t. At least not for me. Debuts always stand as number one on just about any countdown list. Probably because they're seen as a root. But in all actuality, Post-Mortem wasn’t my first Scarpetta book. So after my initial introduction, I went back to the beginning and started paving my loyalty to Scarpetta.  

A serial killer is out on the loose with medical examiner, Kay Scarpetta, finding his victims processed through her facility and on to her body slab. Dedicated to her profession, she exams his victims for the clues necessary to track him down. A little too dedicated to her profession, she steps outside of her medical examiner role to apply those clues within her own sleuthing. Unfortunate for her, she can’t do either without someone in her circle making attempts to have her dead as well.  Of course there's much more one can say, but ultimately Post-Mortem is the keystone to the series. It’s quintessential Scarpetta. It’s her at her basis. Her foundation.  Her introduction.  Her beginning. Her… well you get the point. 

3.  Unnatural Exposure (1997)

This is the book that almost made me fail a biology exam, and skip writing an English paper on Beowulf. I recall a harvest-orange day in Fall; I came home from class, threw my unzipped book bag on the floor, and laid across my bed with this book. From the cover to the last word, I spent an entire evening reading.  I had my pillows tucked under my chest, while my mind escaped my boring life for Scarpetta's.  I didn’t move, as I flew away from the drum of college, papers, exams, and their stresses. I can’t remember whether I ate or not, but there’s something about an drained Starbucks cup settled on the floor near my bed. 

So what happened in Unnatural Exposure? Kay Scarpetta is called to examine the remains of a torso uncovered in a landfill. Wrapping the body, in whatever fashion, Scarpetta takes the victim’s remains to her morgue where her examinations reveal traces of a smallpox-like virus. Add on the killer contacting Scarpetta through the Internet, and things get crazier. Nonetheless, Scarpetta’s investigation leads her to an island of possible virus-carriers, after she discovers she could be infected. Later, she finds herself locked inside a medical treatment facility.  It's here that she has to work with what's available and locked inside with, to keep up with the killer and stop him from implementing his next move with the virus.

Unnatural Exposure had so many things going for it. It was fast-paced, intriguing, and just plain good. I’m always shocked when people underrate this one–especially because it had one of the best plot cohesions. Cornwell sometimes makes these weird leaps into unforeseeable and contrived directions (like the robot deal in Cause of Death), but Unnatural Exposure stayed up on its toes really well to me.  There was hardly a dry spell as Scarpetta struggled to think her way through being infected and locked away for treatment.

2.  The Body Farm (1994)

Hah! Another superbly popular Scarpetta case that I don’t have listed as number one. Nope. However, it’s close. 

My history with Scarpetta started here. I was looking for more mysteries to read with a female protagonist (it's what I enjoy in that order).  I was also trying to find my voice for writing crime fiction.  Almost naturally, Patricia Cornwell popped up on the radar.  And, unusual as it is, I ran with the online forums' insistence that The Body Farm was her best work.  So there was no starting from the beginning and working my way down.  I found a copy at a used bookstore, and it sat on my shelf for over a year. One hot night in July, I decided to read all my unreads to find out what would stick and what would hit the donation pile. And much like Unnatural Exposure, I read The Body Farm in a single night.  In ushered Kay Scarpetta for the long haul.

So here’s the deal.  Outside of fiction, Cornwell peruses the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility–known as the Body Farm–to draw us into something disheartening and gruesome for Kay. In a small town, the body of an eleven-year-old disrupts a community. The once trusting neighbors are suddenly distrustful of one another, knowing that a child-killer is on the loose. When answers aren’t bubbling up fast enough, the local police seek out Kay Scarpetta to fly from Virginia to North Carolina. Her forensics and pathologist talents come into play.  And what she discovers, regarding the girl's murder, is something dark and evil.

So many things to say about this one. So many. You get a better glimpse into Scarpetta’s endearing half, yet witness just how selfish she could be concerning her relationships with others.  Nevertheless, she’s always there with her talents to help others in need, including complete strangers (one of the most memorable moments of the series came here). All her side endeavors are at risk of her losing ground with her sleuthing, but she's determined find resolution through each path. The ending–though short and quick–is also one I would never forget.  However, the true gem is always the forensics information spread out throughout the book.  Whether Kay is examining bodies, rug fibers, or bungee ropes, you're always right there wondering what she will find.  This especially applies with her visit to the Body Farm, a fascinating–if not scary–place for your average person.  The Body Farm leaves you gulping for some personal, outside research on how forensics work.

1.  Body of Evidence (1991)

And here it is folks. My number one, absolute favorite Kay Scarpetta case. And I number it my top case for a specific reason: I cried at the end. That’s right. I shed a tear at the end of Body of Evidence. You may be wondering why, and I’ll tell you. I felt the emotions within this one, particularly those of the victim. Her fate and injustice was so vivid and real that it struck me on an ardent level. Anytime I find myself feeling this deeply for a character–it’s an automatic winner. And I’ll never forget how this book troubled and angered me long after it ended. A similar experience happened after reading J. D. Robb’s Promises in Death.  

It just goes to show the power of books, and how stories resonate with us on sometimes unperceivable levels.

But I digress. Body of Evidence was about as low-key as its predecessor, Post-Mortem. A quiet author named Beryl Madison can’t seem to catch a break from a crazed stalker. He's buzzing her phone constantly. He stalks around her home. He watches her every move until, one sad day, he murders her inside her home. This, naturally, results in Kay Scarpetta coming to the scene to piece together all the forensic evidence necessary for standing and speaking for Beryl. And catch her ghostly killer.  If I have to re-read a Kay Scarpetta book, this would be it.

Honorable Mentions

1.  Scarpetta (2008)
Though it was a part of the third-person pickles, I kind of liked this one.  Maybe it was the little-man psychiatric patient accused of murder that he didn't commit.  Or can't remember if he had.

2.  The Last Precinct (2000)
Scarpetta fired from her job.  There's a scene where her and Lucy walk down a path discussing their professions that has stuck with me.

3.  Cause of Death (1996)   
Scarpetta scuba diving to recover someone's remains.  Completely outside of her medical examiner role, but all the more reason we love her.

4.  From Potter's Field (1995)
Snow and New York City subway system.  Oh, and a crazy killer. 

I've typed myself out.  So what about you?  What's your top 6 favorite Scarpetta cases?  Leave your list in the comments below!

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