When I read Patricia Cornwell's first books featuring Kay Scarpetta, the chief medical examiner for Virginia, I was hooked. Cruel and Unusual (Avon) and Body Farm (Berkley Publishing Group) were two of the best mysteries I read during the 1990s. Then Cornwell started another series that I tried to read and could not finish. Fans of the Scarpetta mysteries will welcome her return in Blow Fly (Putnam).
As the story opens we find Scarpetta teaching a forensics class in Knoxville. She is no longer in the powerful position as Virginia's chief medical examiner but instead is a consultant for the National Forensic Academy. She has given up her impressive home and moved to Florida, the same state where her dysfunctional family lives. While teaching in Knoxville she meets Nic Robillard, who has her own problems as one of the few female law enforcement officers in Louisiana. Scarpetta and Robillard each have their reasons for trying to solve the mystery behind the disappearance of 10 women in Louisiana.
Early in the book, Jean-Paul Chandonne, who is now on death row in Texas, contacts Scarpetta. She is terrified, as he has attempted to kill her in the past. In the meantime, loyal readers of the Scarpetta series will be glad to know that Detective Pete Marino and Scarpetta's niece Lucy are also involved in trying to bring an end to the vicious Chandonne family once and for all.
But wait, there is yet another member of the Chandonne clan alive and well who is wreaking havoc all over Louisiana. Are the disappearances of the women in Louisiana meant as a personal message for Scarpetta?
In order to really understand and enjoy Blow Fly you should read the earlier Cornwell books including Point of Origin, Black Notice, and The Last Precinct. In Point of Origin, something devastating happens to Scarpetta's close friend, investigator Benton Wesley. Then in Black Notice and The Last Precinct we are introduced to the Chandonnes, the world's most notorious crime family. The plots from these earlier Cornwell books carry over into Blow Fly, but I do not think they are all resolved with the book's ending. In my opinion, Blow Fly is part one of what could be the end of the Scarpetta series. Let me know if you agree after you read this book.
The main question for our book club about Blow Fly by Patricia Cornwell is whether this book disappoints you. After all, we read Cornwell and the other great mystery writers like Jan Burke, Steven Womack, Sallie Bissell, Cecelia Tishy, John Connolly, Jonathan Kellerman, Sue Grafton, Steve Hamilton and Karin Slaughter to be entertained, to be scared, to feel superior because we can figure out the puzzle and solve the crime, and to renew our loyalty to favorite characters, but this novel fails in each of these areas.
This is not a negative review of Cornwell's latest Kay Scarpetta story. It is absorbing and interesting enough that I stayed up late to finish it. The problem with this book is there is no mystery and since four of the five major characters in the book are either deceitful or criminal, it is difficult for the reader to relate to or sympathize with those characters.
The fifth major character is Scarpetta who was the dominant person in the early mystery novels by Cornwell. What made the early Scarpetta stories magical for me was the horrifying, but accurate, detail of the chief medical examiner job held by Scarpetta and the intense but disturbing aspects of the relationship between Scarpetta and Richmond, Va., police officer Pete Marino. Unfortunately, in Blow Fly Scarpetta is no longer the chief medical examiner for Virginia. She does basically no lab work in this book and none of the plot hinges upon lab work. Furthermore, Scarpetta's interaction with Marino is limited to a few conversations and Marino's complex personality and reputation for violence, frustration and competence seem to have disappeared.
In place of her earlier themes of science and relationships, Cornwell now gives us a travelogue to Poland where murder is committed, to Baton Rouge, La., where the world's most powerful international criminal conspiracy seems to be located, and to the Texas Death Row. The consistent theme is that of death, betrayal and deceit, which are traditional for crime novels, but not when the reader discovers they are themselves being betrayed by the supposed good guys in the book. It is OK when Cornwell has the bad guy, the Wolfman also known as Jean-Baptiste Chandonne, deceive us; that is the nature of being the bad guy. But when she has the good guys deliberately engage in criminal behavior, up to and including murder, she loses both the attraction and fascination of her story-telling power. Finally, her plot lacks credibility since the ex-lover never explains why he chose to wait six years and then reappear.
Join us for our next book club discussion featuring Island of Bones by P.J. Parrish.