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 writewithoutborders.com, with clients across the U.S., in Europe and Asia.

 

 

Traveling Back to France During My Michigan Lockdown

“Look me up whenever you come to Paris.” 

That’s what famed author Edmund White said to me when we met at an awards banquet in D.C. in the late 80s.  I was frazzled in the 90-degree heat that weekend and not prepared to meet an author I admired so much.  He was the very first person I saw as I walked into the banquet and I probably gushed when I told him how much I admired his work. 

White surprised me with his very specific praise for a story I’d contributed to the anthology Men on Men 2, a story that would become the title piece of my first collection a year later.  Both the story and the collection would help get me national recognition, earn me scores of reviews, and start a series of book tours that ultimately led to readings on three different continents.

White meant what he said.  My spouse and I did look him up a few years later on a trip to France.  We were taking advantage of a great exchange rate and basing ourselves in Paris for three weeks, planning day trips.  When we asked White at dinner what we should make a point of seeing  that tourists tended to miss, he didn’t hesitate: Vaux-le-Vicomte, whose official website is here

I had never heard of this chateau only an hour’s drive from Paris.  The team of artistic geniuses involved in building it for Louis XIV’s superintendent of finances, Nicolas Foucquet, was the same trio who later designed and built Versailles and its gardens.  White assured us of two things.  Versailles was mammoth and would be teeming with busloads of loud and cranky tourists (he wasn’t exaggerating).  Vaux was more jewel-like and he’d be surprised if we would find more than a few dozen people touring the chateau and its exquisite grounds.

He was right.  The day we visited was sunny, and like Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, we were “drowning in honey” as we moved from one amazing room filled with gorgeous paintings, sculptures, furnishings to another–and then out into the gardens to enjoy elegant vistas that seemed almost too perfect to be real.

That day and White’s advice came back to this week when I read the biography above of Foucquet, who was tried on a trumped-up charge of treason and for various financial crimes by the young king.  Louis XIV wasn’t just jealous that Foucquet had the most beautiful dwelling in France,  he was out to flex his muscles and show other rulers who was in charge in France.  He was also moved by people scheming against Foucquet for complicated reasons that would make for a great miniseries.  Foucquet’s long imprisonment in a remote fortress reads like chapters from The Count of Monte Cristo.

But despite his ignominious last years, he left behind a monument of architecture, painting, and landscape gardening that some call the most beautiful building in France.  Even rooms with a less-than-august purpose were magnificent: Vaux was one of the first chateaux to have a dining room.

©Sylvia Davis

Like millions of other Americans, I’ve had cabin fever for weeks now, but this biography opened up an unforgettable day for me, one that happened thirty years ago.  It sent me to a closet where I keep my travel photo albums—remember those?  I hadn’t thought of them in years and realized now that each one is a doorway to another life, another time, and a very welcome escape.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He offers individualized writing workshops and manuscript editing at writewithoutborders.com.

 

Twitter Vive la France! photo below: (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)