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The Scarpetta Factor, By Patricia Cornwell

When interviewed by this newspaper, Patricia Cornwell demonstrated the qualities that have put her in pole position in crime fiction: a fierce intelligence and a determination to be the best at what she does – both characteristics of her forensic pathologist, Kay Scarpetta. But Cornwell shares another characteristic of her heroine's, which undercuts her rather fearsome reputation: a certain vulnerability. When asked about the pretenders whose books are routinely straplined with the phrase "the next Patricia Cornwell", she replied plaintively, "I want to be the next Patricia Cornwell!... I want to be one of those young guns again."

It's this combination of determination and insecurity that (channelled into Scarpetta) has made the books so distinctive, even when Cornwell went through a period where her writing seemed tired. In The Scarpetta Factor, the 17th book, Scarpetta is suffering from the effects of the credit crunch. She decides to work on a pro bono basis for the New York City office of the Chief Medical Examiner. But she finds she cannot do the quiet, methodical work that is her métier – and also discovers the price of instant celebrity. She is interviewed on air about the high-profile disappearance of financial planner Hannah Starr. There is a shocking call-in from a psychiatric patient once in the care of Scarpetta's partner, Benton Wesley. Arriving home at the apartment she shares with the psychiatrist, she discovers a suspicious-looking package. Is it a bomb?

As often before, Scarpetta finds her life is on the line as she becomes embroiled in a bizarre conspiracy involving a missing wealthy woman who has a secret connection with Scarpetta's gay niece Lucy. All of this is handled with the customary Cornwell assurance, although the plotting here strains credulity at times.

How much mileage is left for the Scarpetta franchise? Those who have been worried by what seemed uncomfortably like self-parody in recent books can rest easy. The Scarpetta Factor is a novel that has clearly engaged Cornwell in the same fashion as her vintage work.

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