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Port Mortuary, By Patricia Cornwell

Queen of thrills still cuts deep

In an interview for this newspaper, I once asked Patricia Cornwell how she felt about the army of pretenders to her throne as the queen of the forensic thriller.

Was she worried about the young guns snapping at her heels? Without a smile, she snapped back: "I want to be one of those young guns!" When asked why she should want to be struggling up the greasy pole of success again rather than sitting comfortably at the top, she replied: "The hardest thing of all is to be at the top."

Whether Cornwell likes it or not, she is streets ahead of rivals in terms of sales and (generally speaking) acclaim. But each new novel featuring her forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta (the adjective "feisty" is de rigueur) has its entrails read for signs of faltering powers. There have been several Scarpetta outings recently with significantly lower wattage.

With her latest, Port Mortuary, Cornwell's publishers have introduced a hostage to fortune: a 20th-anniversary edition of her first, Postmortem. Frankly, the gesture does Cornwell few favours. That first book was couched in prose as honed as high-tensile steel, with the perfect marriage between the strikingly-drawn heroine and a narrative assurance that blew away the competition. Reading Port Mortuary after this astonishing debut shows Cornwell's professionalism firmly in place; but does she still have the hunger that drove those early books?

Port Mortuary is written in the first person by Scarpetta. For six months, she has been doing very different work: on a military airbase, dealing with the bodies of soldiers transported from battlefields. Scarpetta has educated herself in the skill of virtual autopsies, which utilise CT scans and 3-D imaging radiology.

After the death of a scientist, the new technology reveals to Kay that the internal damage done to the body is something she has not encountered before. But with customary tenacity, she digs beneath the surface of the mysterious death and discovers that terrifying technological developments are at the service of some dangerous individuals.

The use of Scarpetta's narrative voice has recharged Cornwell's batteries here. If there is a sense of déjà vu, that is because Cornwell has made this kind of material so familiar. However, if Port Mortuary does not notably freshen the Cornwell brew, it still sports the author's customary expertise.

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