Chaos (Kay Scarpetta #24), by Patricia Cornwell

Seven stars

Having reached the impressive milestone of twenty-four Kay Scarpetta novels, Cornwell takes readers on another journey into the fast-paced life of this popular medical examiner. While attending a seminar in Cambridge, Scarpetta is told of a complaint called into the police for disturbing the peace, apparently involving an argument she had with her assistant. Detailed information knowable only to someone who was close at hand, Scarpetta is baffled as to who might be lurking in the shadows and what the rationale could be for such a false report. She is left to think back on the odd messages received from one ‘Tailend Charlie’, a cyber bully that has both her and her techie niece, Lucy, completely baffled. While dining with her husband, FBI Agent Benton Wesley, both receive calls that pull them away from their date and to handle leads in their respective jobs; Wesley a heightened terror alert for the Boston area and Scarpetta to attend the scene of a potential homicide. Scarpetta is met by longtime friend and colleague, Pete Marino outside the restaurant, where they begin piecing together the narrative. After receiving an odd call from INTERPOL, Marino is told of the homicide of Elisa Vandersteel, who works in England. What does not make sense is the fact that INTERPOL was tipped off and took an active interest before the local police have investigated and liaised. Marino and Scarpetta head to the scene, where twin girls apparently found Vandersteel, though they are less than clear in their statements. Racing against the clock, Scarpetta is still hoping to welcome her sister who is flying in from Florida, but has had to pass that along to Lucy. Tailend Charlie continues to send messages, some in Italian, offering shreds of information from Scarpetta’s past that only one or two people could know. During the examination of Elisa’s body, there appears to be signs of an electrical shock that knocked her from riding and Scarpetta realises that she met the young woman earlier in the day. Trying to synthesise what might be going, Scarpetta deduces there might have been a shock from a lightning strike, though the night was free of any cloud cover. With no firm leads, Scarpetta receives a call that her mentor has died after a freak accident, which derails her already fractured concentration. Things continue to take many twisted turns, leaving Scarpetta to have strong memories of her long-time nemesis, Carrie Grethen. How does all this fit together and could someone else be targeting Scarpetta in an attempt to impress Grethen with a degree of psychopathic tendencies? All builds up to a grand finale, where Scarpetta and Wesley come to terms with the series of events that have plagued them, only to leave readers with a stunning revelation that will change the scope of the Scarpetta series for the foreseeable future. An interesting instalment to the series that might leave regulars scratching their heads or tossing the novel down in frustration. 

In a twist of fate, I have read and reviewed a number of series whose length opens the discussion about the usefulness of character longevity. While Kay Scarpetta is a character whose day to day activity is not physically taxing to the point of running her body ragged, series followers will have seen her go through many transformations, both in personal life and the workplace. A character that goes through so much change is sure to become somewhat stagnant without an author at the helm who can rejuvenate the backstory and keep things moving forward. Cornwell has done well with Scarpetta and has kept her from becoming too aged or even losing the lustre of her abilities. However, the writing in his novel showed that the case at hand played second fiddle to an ongoing flashback narrative and one that forced regular readers to pound their heads into the wall. I have always found that if a reader chooses to parachute into the middle of a series, they should leave confused and without a strong connection to the protagonist. However, Cornwell spent so much time rehashing the entire backstory of Dr.Kay Scarpetta and how each character tied to her, back to the early days, that I was left to ask, ‘when will be focus on the case?’. The case was present, though took closer to 70% of the novel to have the esteemed doctor arrive on the scene. Then, in an interesting spin, the entire case, investigation and determination of what happened flowed down like an information avalanche in order to tie things off. Fearing I might offer too much, I must also say that while the key characters were as strong and present as always, the constant reappearance of Carrie Grethen makes me feel as if Scarpetta wanted to tie every case she works to Grethen and all over evildoers must, in some way, be pawns in her game of chess. It gets tiresome and led me to beg Cornwell to have someone cut Grethen’s throat once and for all, watching her bleed out before dropping her in a vat of acid. Kill her once and for all… let’s find new case and new villains with no ties to anyone else. Let Lucy focus her attention elsewhere, have Scarpetta not look over her shoulder… and let the bodies be tied to actual cases that attract the reader’s attention, not something tech-based that pushes the parameters of reality. While Kay Scarpetta does not track down terrorists or have her life threatened as she is beaten up and captured in some Uzbek cave, her time as an effective character might have come to an end at twenty-four novels. Ok, I’ll push the soapbox away and hush now, or at least until the next annual release of Cornwell’s Scarpetta. 

Kudos, Madam Cornwell for another interesting addition to the Scarpetta series. I hope others will see some of what I do and this helps shape your approach to future publications.