Patrica Cornwell’s “Autopsy” is a Dud

I was surprised to receive a review copy of Patricia Cornwell’s 25th Kay Scarpetta book, and I can’t imagine this book getting published by a newbie.  It’s a meandering, slow-mo crime novel that’s badly written and badly edited.

The book is filled with odd usages like “right much” for “very” or “a lot,” and dialogue between family members and spouses that sounds overly formal, almost British. Even tough characters keep saying things like “I’ve not” rather than the more common “I haven’t.”

Whole passages in this book read like a murky first draft, and there are many lines like this one where the writing is seriously off:

My next stop is the kitchen table, what’s actually a butcher block that no doubt belongs to the house.

Just as damaging is the way Cornwell interweaves present tense and past tense–too often I had to go back and figure out what was happening when.  Cornwell’s use of present tense is painful anyway, as when Scarpetta gets dressed and each item of clothing is mentioned in a separate line while she’s on the phone with someone.  Pages like that feel like filler.

Scarpetta is meant to be a uniquely talented, supremely experienced medical examiner but she often seems like an amateur and a jerk.  She’s annoyingly obsessed with minutiae outside her field, griping about a murder victim who didn’t water her plants or recycle, for instance, or use the right storage container in her fridge. 

And for someone scared half to death at one point, the shout of “Goodness!” makes her sound like Miss Marple, not a strong woman at the top of her profession. 

Her overall character seems oddly realized. She lets colleagues, family and even her new secretary bully her, which comes across as annoying and unbelievable.  And for someone who rhapsodizes at length about fine French wines, she thinks pedestrian appetizers are somehow special.  Calling ordinary cheeses “antipasto” doesn’t make them exotic.  If she’s been to France and adores French wine, how comes she’s clueless about its many fabled cheeses?

Her husband drives a Tesla SUV which costs over $100,000 and it gets lavish attention in the book, but they can’t afford an actual wine fridge and she has to jerry-rig something in the basement?  Is that–and plebeian cheese–supposed to appeal to readers who can’t afford expensive wines?  Then why show off the fancy SUV?  These things don’t add up and they exemplify the problem of disconnection that runs through the whole book. 

Time and again, there are places where there’s a kind of logical hiccup, some missing connection.  Like a scene where Kay and her husband are alone in the Oval Office with the president and vice-president, but suddenly he’s talking to “those assembled behind closed doors.” Huh?  And while some characters aren’t described at all, others are described well after they appear on the scene. 

As for the denouement–it fells like a cheat, but saying why would be a spoiler.

Autopsy is often so disjointed you wonder if it was written by a committee. In the end, the uneven mix of forensic thriller with industrial espionage, outer space drama,  office politics, biomedical engineering and AI makes the book seem overstuffed yet weirdly underfed.  

Former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in many genres.  He mentors, coaches and edits writers at, with clients across the U.S., in Europe and Asia.



9 thoughts on “Patrica Cornwell’s “Autopsy” is a Dud”

  1. I totally agree. This is the oddest novel she’s ever published. To start off, it’s difficult to distinguish between her thoughts, other characters speaking and her own character speaking. As usual she talks about her brilliant cooking skills, her genius niece, her genius husband, not to mention her utterly genius self. Somebody tries to kill (as usual), and, as usual she uses her own intellect to survive at the last minute.

    All of these are just the usual Kay fawning over herself about how perfect she is, and how incompetent everyone else is.

    But the thing that annoyed me most about this book, is that there were 3 stories:-

    The railroad murders
    The space murders
    Her own attempted murder, and various synthetic drug overdoses

    There was no attempt to connect them, or explain them at the end of this (short) book, which was 10% story line and 90% of scarpetta pondering about trees, lipstick, cars, a victims recycling habits, the weather the…absolutely anything that could fill a book that would be otherwise 10 pages long.

    • Scarpetta’s musings are inane and boring. And have been for way too long. I shouldn’t be surprised that her book is so badly written and so badly edited. I’ve seen the same thing happen in various ways for years, starting in the 90s when I reviewed crime fiction for the Detroit Free Press: best-selling authors get an almost total pass when it comes to putting out a solid book. Either the publisher doesn’t care or the author refuses to be edited or both.

  2. I’m a retired copy editor, now reading “Livid” and noting many errors, i.e., “nor are the electric skillet or toaster.”
    I’m nearly halfway through the book, and we’re getting nowhere.
    I still enjoy the Scarpetta series, but they’re getting a bit pedestrian and long in the tooth. Cheers from A2!

    • One problem is the over-reliance on Word’s spell and grammar checking, which is riddled with flaws and doesn’t flag a phrase like this. I suspect another is that the books of best-selling authors aren’t getting enough attention by copy editors.

  3. I recently read this book and without getting into spoilers I was a little confused and decided I missed a book along the way. Nope. New job, new state, Marino’s relationship (a little foreshadowed previously), Lucy’s family, Bryce. And the situation with her boss…we go through a pages preparing for and then actual the head-to-head and then that’s completely reversed with one sentence at the end? And the whole thing with the wine poisoning, that was wasted time. It didn’t affect the actual plot in any way. And then the actual criminal? This whole novel was so odd and unsatisfying.

  4. I read The Front and At Risk and they are both duds. No characterization, muddled plot, just a mad rush to heap improbable situations on other improbably situations. Scattered and badly organized. Will not return to this author.

    • I liked the series when it started, but the pressure of turning out a best seller every year so has clearly diminished her range and her talent.


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