Predator, by Patricia Cornwell

A return to vintage Scarpetta territory will please patient fans
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The Independent Culture

One can forgive Patricia Cornwell almost anything. After her debut, Postmortem, gleaned every major crime award, she rarely put a foot wrong, with a series of novels featuring the durable Dr Kay Scarpetta. Those books were ingenious syntheses of traditional police procedural, with innovative and grisly forensic detail.

Although the series established her name as a brand, later books seemed to suggest the Conan Doyle syndrome. Cornwell appeared to be growing tired of her medical-examiner protagonist, and while a plummet from a suitable waterfall for Scarpetta didn't seem likely, it was clear that surgery was needed.

It came in the form of a new series featuring the police chief Judy Hammer, which Cornwell dispatched in a lighter, more humorous style. The series was controversial, but fans had sufficient faith to hang in there. Then came her new obsession: proving that the English painter Walter Sickert was, in fact, Jack the Ripper. Cornwell aficionados sighed and yearned for a return to vintage Scarpetta territory.

Is Predator the book that will allow us to forget those recent missteps? From the first chapter, the auguries are auspicious. There is a steely authority to the prose that conjures memories of Cornwell in her prime, with an exploration of some chilling notions of Florida as a state in which the predator reigns ­ whether of the human or animal variety.

Scarpetta is keen to succeed in her new job as Director of Forensic Science, but nothing is ever easy, as her niece Lucy is locked into a downward trajectory of drunken sexual adventures. In Boston, Kay's colleague Benton Wesley has his hands full with a clandestine project relating to jailed murderers, one of whom appears to have punched up a far higher body count than he was convicted of.

Kay's involvement in the project disturbs her. When the mutilated, sexually abused body of a girl is found in Massachusetts, the handprints tattooed on her body are identical to those Lucy has seen on one of her casual lovers.

Cornwell is able to summon the brio that so enlivened her early work, and while Kay's troubles are variants on familiar material, the author's sleight of hand is such that we're not really given the time to pick holes. If there's a problem, it's that there are just too many troubled female forensic scientists out there, all with their bloodied fingers deep in entrails à la Scarpetta. Maybe it's time for a moratorium...

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