Fresh Meat: Patricia Cornwell’s Red Mist

Red Mist by Patricia CornwellWe were close once, Patrica Cornwell’s Dr. Kay Scarpetta and I. But we’ve grown apart over the years. Scarpetta still writes of her cases, of the bodies she dissects and the killers she catches, and I still read of her exploits but with each new installment, I drift. Perhaps it’s because she’s strayed further from the everyday monsters that stalk the streets, the ones that kill in alleyways and houses around the corner and in hotel rooms down the hall. She’s long since left behind Richmond and the Chief Medical Examiner’s office for positions with military clout, manning her own forensic center outside of Boston and, briefly, being CNN’s go-to forensic analyst.

These jobs don’t lack for corpses or the unhinged personalities that produce them by the gurney load. But what they can lack is the immediacy, the unwished for intimacy of the earlier cases Scarpetta investigated as a regular ME. The ones without conspiracies or government clearance, without threat levels that need assessment at every turn. The cases where ordinary people living ordinary lives are killed—often in admittedly horribly gruesome ways—by those masquerading as the same kind of ordinary people. Early in Postmortem, she calls just such a person Mr. Nobody:

Out there, somewhere, is a man, I thought. He could be anybody, walks upright, sleeps with a roof over his head and had the usual number of fingers and toes. He is probably white and much younger than my forty years. He is ordinary by most standards and probably doesn’t drive a BMW or grace bars in the Slip or the finer clothing stores along Main Street.

But, then again, he could. He could be anybody and he was nobody. Mr. Nobody. The kind of guy you don’t remember after riding up twenty floors alone with him inside an elevator.

When we first met, the good doctor and I, she’d been Richmond’s Chief ME less than two years and I’d been methodically working my way through books with higher and higher body counts. In a way, we were both new in town. I was closer in age to her precocious niece, Lucy—computer genius extraordinaire and, years later, gun-wielder and pilot of helicopters—but I was drawn to Scarpetta and the fierce dedication that radiated from beneath her prickly outer shell, a no-holds-barred commitment to the job and the select few allowed within her inner circle. I’d read series before, followed protagonists and their baggage from book to book, but Scarpetta’s tales were different.

In the early days, I latched on, read and reread, considered the darkness that surrounds us all through her eyes. If Scarpetta was a forensic pathologist, I could be a forensic pathologist. If Scarpetta got a joint MD/JD, so could I.

But eventually we all grow up, and apart. Scarpetta grew too big for Richmond, then Miami. Now she’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, running the Cambridge Forensic Center and jetting off to wherever might need her coveted expertise: Dover Air Force Base, Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital, a Georgia women’s prison. FBI profiler Benton Wesley is firmly in the picture after several touch-and-go years. He’s a cold fish but if he makes Scarpetta happy, then I’ll stop wishing his “death” wasn’t staged. Lucy is all grown up, a millionaire with hacking skills to put any governmental agency on edge. She is as guarded as her aunt but values loyalty perhaps even more fiercely. Pete Marino is seemingly indestructible despite being a chain-smoking, (currently recovering) alcoholic with vaguely misogynistic tendencies.

And me? Where do I stand? I am not a forensic pathologist nor do I have a joint JD/MD. I did have a childhood guinea pig named Scarpetta, who became as feisty as her namesake. Every year, I read of Scarpetta’s adventures—the “real” one, not the dearly departed rodent—and remember the times we had together more than a decade ago. The last few installments have given me hope that the old Scarpetta is not entirely lost, that she’s still out there somewhere, making her way back. For a while, when she switched from personally recounting her story to flitting back and forth between the minds of the people around her, I was afraid we’d lost touch forever. But since Port Mortuary, when I saw the “I” on the opening pages, and now with Red Mist, I’m cautiously optimistic. I know such optimism is colored by nostalgia. If we met for the first time today, or when Red Mist is on the shelves, I doubt we’d hit it off. Yet we are still friendly, in the way that childhood playmates who knew each other’s secrets may fumble to start a conversation as adults but once that rhythm is found, memory takes over. I still feel her pain in Mist when, while in Savannah to see an inmate at the Georgia Prison for Women who has ties to Scarpetta’s recent past, she learns devastating news and her first thoughts are of Lucy:

Had I been here during [the] crisis, I could have saved her. There were signs and symptoms, and I ignored them, and I don’t know how I will explain that to my niece. […] I will have to tell Lucy I failed[…]her. I’m not sure Lucy will forgive me. I wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t. All these years she has made the same comments to me again and again, repeating the same objections because I make the same mistakes. Don’t fight my battles. Don’t feel my feelings. Don’t try to fix everything, because you only make it worse. I made it worse.

That’s the old Scarpetta talking. The one who is so confident in her own abilities that when they fail her, often through no fault of her own, and those she loves bear the consequences, she is as close to breaking as she’ll ever be. The Mist plot, with its potential mass poisoning scheme coupled with a death row appeal, is certainly on the grander side of the scale compared to Scarpetta’s earlier exploits but there’s a definite emphasis on her emotional state and the gnawing toll the events of Mortuary have taken on her. Not that she lets that get in the way of her work. Despite Lucy’s warnings, there are battles to fight and things to fix.

Jordan Foster grew up in a mystery bookstore in Portland, Oregon. She has a MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia University, which she’s slowly paying off by writing about crime fiction for Publishers Weekly and Bookish. She’s back in Portland, where it’s nice and rainy and there are endless places to stash bodies. She tweets @jordanfoster13.


  1. Patrick

    I totally agree with your comments. I loved her first 4 books, and the next few were also pretty good. I still read most of her books, but in recent years it is hard to like any of the main characters, and the stories lack the intensity of her earlier novels. I was speaking with somebody a while back about Cornwell and we both felt that she began to lose it with the character who the hair all over the body. Since then, her stories have no longer had the same impact on us.

  2. Cornelia Read

    I am just loving the concept of a guinea pig named Scarpetta. As a woman who tends to name cats things like “Booger” and “Suckbag.”

    Totes ossum post, dude.

  3. Clare 2e

    I think the guinea pig’s name is great, too, and it made me wonder, besides Marlowe and Rambo and Hannibal, which I do hear now and then, how many other famous crime characters become animal names. Does Mr. Magoo count as a crimefighter?

  4. Jordan Foster

    I also named a (male) family cat Scully. He just wasn’t a Mulder. Hasn’t Alafair B. blogged about how someone named their kittens Ellie Hatcher and Harry Bosch?

    And, dude, Suckbag? Totes love.

  5. Clydia DeFreese

    I love Patricia Cornwell books. (I had a hard time finding where to enter. I wish your directions were more consistent…..but I guess finding WHERE to enter is part of the mysterious process.)

  6. Jordan Foster

    @clydia, I always advocate starting at the beginning of a series (so with Cornwell, it would be Postmortem). This particular review was on her new book (at the time), Red Mist. But for the majority of writers, I’d suggest beginning with book #1.

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