Patricia Cornwell is one of America's most stimulating and chilling writers of crime fiction. In Port Mortuary we welcome back a voice we haven't heard in years, that of Kay Scarpetta herself. Told entirely from Scarpetta's point of view - and containing secrets from her past that have never before been revealed - this is the return to the voice of one of the world's most intriguing characters.
As the New York Times says - "When it comes to the forensic sciences, nobody can touch Cornwell."
What is Port Mortuary? It is literally a port to receive the dead - and the deaths are mounting, as dangerous secrets from Scarpetta's past come back to haunt her.
The novel begins on Kay Scarpetta's last day at the Dover Port Mortuary where she has been training for six months. She has been mastering the art of 'virtual autopsy' - a groundbreaking procedure that is set to revolutionise forensic science. She is abruptly removed from Port Mortuary to put these new-found skills into practise when a young man is found murdered close to her home. A question is asked - was he alive when he was zipped into his body bag? This is what Scarpetta must ascertain.
Straight off the helicopter, a chilling drive through a blizzard to Boston and into the morgue, Scarletta gets straight to work. She uses revolutionary 3D radiology scans to study the young man's internal injuries. But these baffle Scarpetta and her team. This was definitely murder, not a heart attack as first surmised. The murderer is cunning and cruel. Maybe others have already been killed. She must race to find answers before others die.
In 'A Note to My Readers' at the beginning, Cornwell states that while Port Mortuary is a work of fiction, it is not science fiction. Even though at times it reads like science fiction, Cornwell asserts that all the medical and forensic procedures, technologies and weapons she writes about exist now.
Most of the entities in the book exist, such as the Port Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base and Special Weapons Observation Remote Direct-Action System (SWORDS) and many more. To me, this was quite disturbing news, but Patricia Cornwell uses the voice of Kay Scarpetta to reveal one of the premises of the book:
"Computers, robotics, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, the more off the wall, the better," she says. "... there's no such thing as mad scientists anymore. I'm not sure there's nay such thing as science fiction. Come up with the most extreme invention you can imagine, and it's probably being implemented somewhere. It's probably old news."
A spine-chilling read at times, yet I feel myself falling out of love with Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta. She appears particularly cold in this novel (as do all the other main characters.) I liked her more in her earlier persona where I saw her chopping onions and full of angst over her relationship with her mother, her sister and "phobic and cynical"niece Lucy. I can't warm to her cold-fish husband Benton, (FBI Psychologist) who always appears to be slyly hiding information from Scarpetta. He "died" and rose again in a previous novel. Her long-term love-loathe relationship with detective Pete Marino continues and doesn't get any less weirder. In this novel, her super-rich, super-talented, super Obsessive-Compulsive niece Lucy is just as full-on, and mostly unbelievable. Scarpetta's strange Medical Examiner Jack Fielding who's been holding the fort while she's been away 6 months features a lot in conversations but he's mostly "gone missing."
For all my disappointment with Cornwell's characterisation (and she might think cold characters suit a not-a-science-fiction story) it is still a good page turner and I'd recommend it to those who like to keep up with the latest in forensic science. Well, what do we watch on TV every night? People love it. I'd much rather read about it than see it graphically displayed in the lounge room. Cornwell has certainly done her research and presents these new technologies in a believable way.
L'Aussie's Verdict: 7.5/10