Flesh and Blood by Patricia Cornwell, book review: Meaty addition to a gore-soaked series

 

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The Independent Culture

Patricia Cornwell's books featuring her forensic sleuth Kay Scarpetta have been bestsellers for years, since her debut Post Mortem in 1990 inaugurated what is now a 22-book sequence.

I once asked her how she felt about each new female pretender to her crown being announced on the jacket as "The Next Patricia Cornwell"; she replied: "But I want to be the next Patricia Cornwell!" I took it to mean that she wanted to recapture some of the excitement of those early years, but she and her creation are now crime fiction institutions, with each new book expected to top – or at least match – its predecessor.

In Flesh and Blood Dr Kay Scarpetta is in Miami with her FBI-profiler husband Benton Wesley. She notices something curious on a wall: seven pennies. It doesn't appear to be a child's game, as the coins are dated 1981 and appear to have been newly minted. Is it connected with the killing, a short distance away, of a music teacher shot as he took groceries from his car? Like every vacation that every sleuth has taken in every crime novel, Scarpetta's break is to be cut short, and she is soon on the trail of a serial sniper – one who leaves no evidence after his logic-defying executions. And when Scarpetta investigates a shipwreck off the coast of Florida, she finds evidence that seems to draw her technologically gifted niece Lucy (the gay relative we know from other novels) into the frame.

Other writers with feminist agendas (such as Sara Paretsky) devise scenarios in which the heroine encounters frequent sexist behaviour from men, but Cornwell has a different tactic, imbuing Scarpetta with forthright, authoritative and confrontational qualities traditionally identified as male; there are no battles with sexism for Scarpetta – she's already won them. Cornwell has been criticised for her unflinching treatment of the gruesome, though one might wonder why the squeamish would pick up a novel about a forensic pathologist.

This book remains focused on its single-minded protagonists, Scarpetta and her associates (unlike James Lee Burke, Cornwell avoids state-of-the-nation novels, although Barack Obama has a walk-on part in this one); internecine conflicts in the team are as sparky as ever. Notably tenser than Dust, its predecessor, Flesh and Blood justifies its 370 pages, but its sheer bulk means it's not one for the Cornwell novice. Aficionados, however, will be happy to immerse themselves once again in Kay Scarpetta's blood-drenched universe.

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