Review: Chaos by Patricia Cornwell

Chaos by Patricia Cornwell is the 24th thriller in the #1 New York Times bestselling author's popular high-stakes series starring medical examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta (Available November 15, 2016).

Fans of Patricia Cornwell know that it’s never good news when Dr. Kay Scarpetta’s cell phone rings after hours. Even worse when her husband’s, FBI profiler Benton Wesley, chirps simultaneously.

So when both are interrupted at an intimate dinner at Harvard’s exclusive Faculty Club in the opening pages of Chaos, readers are right to suspect that some version of hell has broken loose. Indeed, these calls bring chilling news on an otherwise unusually humid fall evening: the body of a bicyclist has been found dead alongside the Charles River.

Almost immediately, Scarpetta—who’s become the target of an anonymous cyberbully named Tailend Charlie—fears that the victim may be a young woman she’s come face-to-face with twice that day due to apparent coincidence (though coincidence is largely irrelevant to her life). But when her investigative partner, Pete Marino, reports possible international interest in the case, she understands that something much more sinister may have come to pass. Fitting of this sense of foreboding is the oppressive atmosphere that Cornwell so vividly depicts:

Were it not for the distant sounds of traffic, the infrequent pedestrian, the vapor trails overhead, I might believe I’m the only human left on a post-apocalyptic earth. I’ve never seen the Harvard campus this deserted except maybe during a bomb scare. But then I’ve also not been witness to such extreme weather in this part of the world, and blizzards and arctic blasts don’t count.

New Englanders are used to that but not temperatures edging past a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. The sun is molten in a bone-scrubbed sky that the heat has bleached the blue out of as I’ve heard it described. The greenhouse effect. Global warming. God’s punishment. The Devil’s in his workshop. Mercury in retrograde. El Niño. The end times.

These are some of the explanations for one of the worst heat waves in Massachusetts’s history. Business at my headquarters, the Cambridge Forensic Center, has gone through the roof, and that’s the paradox of what I do. When things are bad they’re normal. When they’re worse they’re good. It’s a gift and a curse that I have job security in this imperfect world … 

Once at the crime scene, Scarpetta is truly in her element (even if baffled by its disorder), and Cornwell—narrating from her protagonist’s sharp perspective—spends an abundance of pages walking readers through procedure. From safeguarding the area and interviewing witnesses to inventorying evidence and examining the body, it’s utterly fascinating and first-rate (which demonstrates convincingly why the author has always been at the forefront of forensics). So, too, Scarpetta’s keen sense of obligation to the victim and her insistence on remaining objective and allowing science rather than speculation to dictate the story:

Her eyes stare dully at me from slitted lids

If only you could speak, I always think. She will in her own way and in her own time. The language of the dead is silent and difficult, and the message I keep getting is Elisa Vandersteel looks remarkably clean and uninjured. I haven’t turned her over yet, and I’ll know more when I can examine her internally. But already I feel confident that her singed hair is directly related to her death.

Of course, looks can be deceiving, and it soon becomes clear that Vandersteel’s death is not a random act of nature but the result of a cunning and technologically savvy predator. When a second murder occurs hundreds of miles away, it hits Scarpetta at her emotional core—and proves that the threat is both personal and far-reaching and those she loves most are yet again in the crosshairs. With the usual gang at her side—including her brilliant niece, Lucy, who is uncharacteristically outmaneuvered by Tailend Charlie—Scarpetta must uncover the shocking truth before it destroys them all.

Chaos, then, is an apt—and aptly titled—addition to the Scarpetta arsenal, which now spans twenty-four books and twenty-six years. Despite competition from television, film, and a host of other authors inspired by her unique brand, Cornwell has remained a singular force in suspense fiction. Once again, her scientific mastery and dynamic plot twists transcend comparison, as does the indomitable Scarpetta, who continues to restore order and justice when all else fails.


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John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.


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