Book Review: Livid by Patricia Cornwell
By John ValeriOctober 28, 2022
Perspective can be difficult to maintain in general, let alone in times of a pandemic. Covid found many of us—readers and writers—craving comfort in the familiar to counter fear of the unknown. Consequently, #1 New York Times bestselling author Patricia Cornwell was unexpectedly inspired to revisit her iconic sleuth, forensic pathologist Dr. Kay Scarpetta, in last year’s Autopsy after a five-year hiatus. That book cleansed a complex creative canvas that had become mired in backstory by returning the character to her Virginia roots. This October, the indomitable Scarpetta once again reappears in Livid, the series twenty-sixth entry.
As the story opens, Scarpetta is on the witness stand in the Commonwealth of Alexandria’s case against Gilbert Hooke—though it seems she is as much on trial as the defendant, who stands accused of killing his girlfriend, April Tupelo. While the Chief Medical Examiner would ordinarily find herself in alignment with state’s council, Bose Flagler, her interpretation of the case—that Tupelo died of drowning rather than homicide—is met with hostility and a desire to impeach. It’s an unenviable position, as Scarpetta must publicly disavow her deceased colleague Bailey Carter’s findings, which she believes were compromised by the doctor’s rapid-onset dementia; this dissent is met with public hate and hysteria. With protestors both inside and outside the courtroom and the potential for riots in the street, Scarpetta is understandably relieved to step down following examination.
But the relief doesn’t last long. She and investigator Pete Marino are soon notified that presiding judge (and Scarpetta’s friend/former roommate) Annie Chilton’s sister has been found dead at the family’s home. Further, evidence at the crime scene—blown electricity, dead wildlife, singed greenery, etc.—indicates the use of a high-tech “microwave gun.” That the victim was employed by the CIA and allegedly having an extramarital affair with Flagler only complicates matters, which are steeped in personal and professional quagmire. When a second body is discovered at a separate location, Scarpetta and expert Co. (including husband, Benton, and niece, Lucy) know that the threat of further violence is imminent. Still, internal strife and jurisdictional turf wars (think CIA, FBI, Secret Service) threaten to delay resolution, even as the terrorist(s) prepare to strike again.
While Cornwell has always excelled in her depictions of science and technology and their influence on crime and detection—indeed, Postmortem (1990) is largely credited with sparking the forensics boom in popular entertainment—she also fully inhabits scenes in ways that few authors can. For instance, Scarpetta’s observations of the crime scenes in Livid go on for chapters, not paragraphs or pages, providing a uniquely cerebral, sensory experience. These procedural elements are deeply immersive, even consuming at times, but the character’s reverence for the dead and commitment to truth offset the more clinical aspects of the narrative with a clear and ever-present conscience. It’s exactly this juxtaposition of medical expertise and mindful enlightenment that give the books their mass appeal.
If Autopsy was a reboot, then Livid—which refers not only to the state of mind but a physical condition—is a sequel of sorts (and subtly harkens back to All That Remains), solidifying the fresh, familiar formula. While the external forces of evil are new here, the internal enemies remain the same, pitting beloved, beleaguered characters against criminals and corruption. Once again, Patricia Cornwell offers a glimpse into a nightmarish future that is already here, reminding us that our deepest fears have likely become reality. Fortunately, the guardians of good—of which Kay Scarpetta is a longstanding example—remain steadfast in their opposition, seeking justice and truth to quell the uncertainties that haunt us.