At Risk, by Patricia Cornwell

Psychic secrets of the dreamboat detective
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The Independent Culture

Patricia Cornwell is most famous for creating Dr Kay Scarpetta and for bringing the latest techniques from forensic technology to crime writing. With the same impassioned scientific scrutiny she gives Scarpetta, Cornwell once investigated the riddle of Jack the Ripper's identity. She spent £2m gathering DNA evidence, hiring handwriting experts and buying 30 of Walter Sickert's paintings to establish the artist's guilt as the East End serial killer. Even her fans remain sceptical.

Now, in her latest thriller, At Risk, she has returned to what she does best, and in the process has created a new hero: Winston Garano, an investigator with the Massachusetts State Police. Garano is a stunningly good-looking, mixed-race, maverick detective who relies on his instincts to solve crimes. He has a frighteningly dynamic female boss - a combination Cornwell is fond of.

District Attorney Monique Lamont has sent Garano to Knoxville, Tennessee, to attend the National Forensic Academy. She then orders him to investigate a 20-year-old murder that took place there. Lamont wants to employ Garano's expertise (and, with his looks, he's a PR dream) and cutting-edge DNA technology to show a cold case being solved by her department. She has her eye on the governor's office.

Garano knows when he is being suckered, is duly offended, and quits - over dinner with Lamont, improbably. Cornwell is superb at procedure, but far too brisk a writer to deliver sexual tension. The best scenes here are between Garano and his psychic grandmother, who signposts all the stages of deduction before the action springs them. Who needs DNA?

When Lamont is subject to a horrifying assault, from which Garano rescues her, he is forced to stay on the job. He asks a female agent with a crush on him for help on the Knoxville case. Just as surely as Lamont plays Garano, Garano plays her.

Within the scheme of the novel, Cornwell convincingly blends her characters' emotional predilections with their professional lives. Lamont's love of antique glass reflects her narcissism. Garano's love of fashion reflects his. But as the hero he has conscience on his side and the wherewithal to rescue three damsels in distress - one of them an abused canine.

Cornwell is going all out for her female readers here. Ultimately, she creates a cast whose crimes range from insider trading to emotional manipulation. Cleverly, the tone darkens after Lamont is made vulnerable. Equally cleverly, the characters do not undergo moral growth as a result. This stark approach to storytelling suggests a woman so engaged with violence and misogynistic rage that she does not feel the need to pull her punches. It's just as well Garano's such a good guy.

Lilian Pizzichini's 'Dead Men's Wages' is published by Picador

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