California Literary Review

Book Review: Port Mortuary by Patricia Cornwell

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December 21st, 2010 at 4:25 pm

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Port Mortuary by Patricia Cornwell
Port Mortuary
by Patricia Cornwell
Putnam Adult, 512 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★☆☆☆


In Her Scrubs

Whatever her faults, you can’t criticise Patricia Cornwell for sticking in a rut. Port Mortuary, her latest novel about the forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta, uses a new narrative device to explore fresh plot territory. But the resulting book is exceptionally difficult to like.

Port Mortuary signals a new departure before the first page, with a rather portentous “Note to My Readers” which warns them that “Whilst this is a work of fiction, it is not science fiction…Some of what you are about to encounter is extremely disturbing. All of it is possible”. The note goes on to list the eight organisations in the book which are “real and fully operational” and specify which three are merely “completely within the realm of possibility”. The story which follows bears out this suggestion that Cornwell is moving further down the path her most recent work has been taking – from detection towards hi-tech, with high concept looming ominously on the far horizon. Since the novel relies so heavily on the hardware element, it would be unfair to reveal the gizmos which zoom and creep amongst its pages, but there are enough uses of the prefix “nano-“ to keep lovers of futuristic-sounding technology happy. Though anyone who doesn’t fancy the idea of giant mechanical ants might want to give this one a miss.

With this influx of military hardware goes the demise of any real detection, an alteration demonstrated by the discovery of a body with strange wounds, almost as if it has been stabbed by a knife which can pump explosive gas into the body. If the reader spends much time puzzling over what kind of attack could have caused such anomalous wounds, they’ve wasted their efforts. Scarpetta googles a few combinations of words and it turns out that one can buy a knife online which pumps explosive gas into the body. Revealing this isn’t a spoiler, since there is nothing to spoil: the interest has shifted from the account of how she arrived at the facts of the crime, to the excitement of those facts themselves. I should add that this shift is not a fault in itself: critics of Victorian fiction have long described writers like Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle as operating on a spectrum between “suspense” and “sensation”. You don’t have to be continually working out what will happen next in order to enjoy the stream of thrilling incidents in The Woman in White – indeed, I’m not sure I know what happened now I’ve read it. And how much of the pleasure of The Hound of the Baskervilles actually comes from ratiocination – isn’t one of Doyle’s best tricks his ability to persuade the audience that they’re enjoying one mode of writing when in fact they’re enjoying the other? So Cornwell’s foray into a more “sensational” (in this sense) style needn’t be a cause for complaint, though it may wrong-foot some of the readers who have been following Scarpetta’s career previously.

However, if the Scarpetta novels are going to move in this direction, towards the fact-based and undeniably gripping model of Frederick Forsyth’s work, they need to get their facts right. Amidst the welter of hi-tech info which the average reader couldn’t – or wouldn’t – check, there is a blunder which most readers won’t even need to. In deepening Scarpetta’s “back-story”, Port Mortuary describes how she worked in South Africa soon after graduating, and is haunted by her complicity in covering up a crime by the apartheid state. Put briefly, a pair of young women, one South African and one American, were killed (presumably by state forces) and their bodies mutilated and arranged to make it appear that they had been tortured to death by an “Afrikaner” gang. Scarpetta suggests that this was to done for the political advantage of the racist authorities and to cast the “Afrikaners” in a bad light. This subplot is based on the apparent assumption that the Afrikaners were black South Africans oppressed under the apartheid system, rather than (as was actually the case) a “white” group whose Nationalist politicians enacted the apartheid laws. This is clearly just a factual mess-up, and there is no sense in which the novel suggests that the racial politics of apartheid South Africa involved the wholesale oppression of white people by other racial groups. But the mistake is pretty severe, and underlines the novel’s reliance on hardware over other values. The ignorance of South Africa’s history wouldn’t be a problem if it hadn’t been latched into Port Mortuary as a way of adding an ethical element to the narrative, and heightening Scarpetta’s moral significance. A book which is going to co-opt South Africa’s troubled past in order to add stature to its protagonist might take the trouble to get the basic facts right.

This change in material goes along with an experiment in form: this is the first Scarpetta novel to be written entirely from a first-person perspective. Cornwell has discreetly juggled various kinds of perspective in the past, moving from more objective third-person to a more intimate free indirect style when she sounds as if she’s narrating from somewhere near her character’s heads, if not quite inside them. In Port Mortuary she goes the full perspectival hog, and we see the world from Scarpetta’s eyes, narrated via her internal monologue. It’s a fairly bleak place from where she’s standing. First-person novels are always tricky to discuss (and indeed to read), since they tend to collapse the multiple perspectives available in other forms of narration: one always seems to be wobbling between accepting the character’s voice as a reliable narration, and hopping out of their head to work out what they might look like to those around them. However, in Cornwell’s case we have an unusual advantage: the previous seventeen novels have already provided us with a feel for the world her character is inhabiting, a sort of “reality check” against which to gauge Scarpetta’s thoughts and feelings. And her perceptions don’t come off well when measured up against that reality. Scarpetta’s internal monologue, when extended for hundreds of pages, comes across as self-pitying, snobbish, contemptuous of other people and verging on paranoia. This may be a rather skilful piece of character work by Cornwell, but it is difficult to enjoy being inside this mind for any length of time. The response to great swathes of Scarpetta’s mental processes as she wades through the depths of human experience is not horror, but irritation.

Cornwell has finished her novels with a meal more than once in the past, with these occasions serving as a kind of secular communion in which her characters are brought together to quietly reassert the values of the series after the horrific events they have been through. Port Mortuary’s end is similar, but the differences are telling. Scarpetta is alone with a dog which she has rescued during the story, and talking to it about the meal she intends to cook for her husband Benton:

“Let’s go for a ride.” I talk to Sock as I find my slippers and a robe. “Let’s see what Secret Agent Wesley is doing. He’s probably in the office on his phone again, what do you bet? I know, he’s always on the phone, and I agree, it’s quite annoying. Maybe he’ll take us shopping, and then I’m going to make a very nice pasta, homemade pappardelle, with a hearty Bolognese sauce, ground veal, red wine and lots of mushrooms and garlic.”

The narrative peters out in a solipsistic and sentimental monologue, as Scarpetta talks aloud — not to another character, but to a creature which can neither understand her nor answer back.

  • David D. Libenson

    I agree with this review. In fact I thought the books was much worse than Mr. Bloomfield. I thought Scarpetta was verging on a mental breakdown. The first person style was extremely irritating. I lost track of the murdered characters because of the lengthy ramblings. The ending was incredibly vague. I am still not sure of the relationships between the murderer and the victems and I really don’t care. I have read many Cornwell books and this will be my last.

  • Chris

    “This change in material goes along with an experiment in form: this is the first Scarpetta novel to be written entirely from a first-person perspective.”

    This is incorrect – the first several books in this series were entirely first-person.

  • Jem Bloomfield

    Whoops! I stand corrected – Chris is quite right when he says that the earliest Scarpetta novels were first person. Though I’d maintain that this is a drastic change in style from both those early works and even the more recent books in the series – where they were conventional first-person narrative, sections of “Port Mortuary” verge on “stream-of-consciousness”. Thanks for putting me right.

  • Karen Listowski

    I have read all of the Kay Scarpetta books and I absolutely hated this one! I was determined to ready the entire long book, thinking it would get better. I did read it all and what a waste of time. I think it was horrible. I hope the next book improes. I am really leary to buy the next one.

  • beverley

    i have been trying to read this book for the last week. I can’t seem to get into it. I am forcing myself to read it and then thought , hmm maybe I will see what others think of it.

    After reading 6 or 7 reviews, I am not going to finish it. I rarely do that!! Thanks for saving me time.

  • Andrea

    I decided last night I would not finish the book yet picked it up again tonight before deciding – enough. It was an extremly tedious read. I could not get into it and have no interest in the ending. It is time to find a new author.

  • Sue

    Very har work and if this writing style continues i will not bother buying any more of her books.

  • Linda

    A horrible waste of time- so much could have been done with this material.

    I listened to the book in an audio format – which makes Scarpetta’s neurotic internal reflections even more grating. I kept on thinking “lighten up lady, take a chill pill or something”

  • Karen

    I disagree here; I found the book compelling! Cornwell has moved into psychological aspectsin the last book or two, so to go first-person here into Kay’s head makes sense to me. And the paranoia that was mentioned — that’s what the character feels! You feel it too. I felt violated and angry when she did, and suspicious when she did as well.

    The books are moving to a high-tech realm because the *world* is moving in that direction. It’s not the late 90’s anymore; We can’t expect Scarpetta to still use an AOL dial-up account, and we can’t expect Cornwell to ignore advances and keep writing the same book that she did back then, only with new victims. That’s a Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew variety. The fact that each book is a different take on Scarpetta is very much in keeping with real life.

  • Andrew

    Yeah — but the “new” Cornwell is boring. More than halfway through Port Mortuary I realized very little had actually happened, aside from tons of handwringing. Finally, I was bored enough to pick up another book. All the psycho stuff, all the technology, do little to compensate for what’s missing, and that’s great characters and a great story. WAY too much time is spent going over and over the same conversations and ideas. Ms. Cornwell desperately needs an editor.

  • Kathy

    Just finished this book and it was beyond torture. Have opened and closed it at least 10 times in the past month, but was determined to finish it today. Waste of my time and an unbelievably disappointing work. BORING with hundreds of pages of NOTHING!!! Had this been her first novel, PC would NEVER have the following she does today. Previously on my “must read” list, I am not so sure I’ll ever “tackle” another. First-person perspective of Kay Scarpetta proved to be a miserable failure…if PC stands a chance of “recovering” from this mess, she needs to stick to what has worked so well for her.

  • http://calitreview.com Edna McDaniel

    I’ve read and enjoyed nearly all of Cornwells books, but this one almost makes me wonder if she actually wrote it. What a disappointment!! It goes on endlessly with rambling sentences that are hard to follow. I actually forced myself to finish it thinking somehow it would come together in the end. It didn’t.

  • Margaret Carroll

    I too wondered if PC actually wrote this book. Perhaps she had an uncredited co-author? I have looked forward to each olf the Scarpetta books and never disppointed. Until now.
    I’m not a rocket scientist (or a scientist of any kind, and couldn’t for the life of me follow the jargon, plot or characters.

    Please Patricia, take us back to your interactions with Lucy, Marino and Benton.

  • Mike

    Wow!! This has to be the worst book I have ever read. I think I would rather choke down a cactus. The actual story line could have been written in Two chapters. No more Cornwell for me. Good luck Patricia.

  • Sarah

    I have been reading Cornwell’s books since she published in 1991 and I passionately HATED this book. I couldn’t get into it at all; tried to stick with it, gave up, tried to get back into it, started a new book, picked this one back up, started pver, etc. I have 100 pages to go and I can honestly say I don’t really care what happens. I have been looking for the “Cliffs Notes” version of the story because I don’t think I can finish it and I LOVE to read. Very disappointing. Hard to read, Scarpeeta sounds like a paranoid snob, the South Africa story-line…since when.? It is like reading a Kathy Reichs book and then watching Bones. Not even in the same universe in terms of style and content.

  • Bwagner

    I have listened ot all of her books on tape. I am not a fast reader and enjoy books on tape while I am driving. The last couple of her books have just been agony for me. I keep coming back though, sucked in because I think a change is coming. I am in the middle of Port Mortuary now and had to stop and get some perspective. Sounds like almost everybody here is in agreement. Change or go by the wayside Dr. Scarpetta. I don’t even know, if for me, a drastic change in style would do it. I am gonna go out on a limb here for sure and offer my opinion of what I feel. I hate the fact that everything absolutely has to be so precise. I don’t care about what kind of leather Benton is wearing or Lucy’s latest expensive gadgets. I feel like PC is trying, constantly to let everyone know that, either she is a wonderful researcher of expensive items or very knowledgeable on the finer things. She mentions single malt scotch and Breitling watches and expensive vehicles and motorcycles and fabulous meals and on and on and on. Things that don’t endear me to her plight. Contrast this with somebody like Elmore Leonard who doesn’t have to describe anything and still gets the point across. I get it. I know Scarpetta and Benton are snobby or just good with their money. I also have noticed more and more of her novels that I read of late, are geared more toward her own sexuality and the fact that she is Gay. Do more and more characters in her books have to “come out” or do we need to know just how incensed she is about all the wrong doings in the world. This may be great reading for all the tree hugging hippies out there but for this middle class male reader of a person, that I loved when she wrote things like Black Notice, I just can’t hardly get on board anymore. I am wondering now, whether to go straight to the library and turn my CDs back in or try and finish this. Reminds me too when in her book “At Risk” or whatever one of her last ones was, how she told exactly what kind of fishing reel and rod were used. Minute details to show that she knew what she was talking about. Very annoying to me. At least, unless Kate Redding is the same Kate narrating this book, she has toned down her bitchery. Up until this book I felt like Scarpetta is so Angry. Now she just seems crazily paranoid or devoid of common sense.

  • http://www.valgall.com Val Gall

    Like many who have posted above I have also read all of PC books.
    I too hated this one & I am only half way through! I have kept reading in the hope that she will stop rambling & that something will unfold to explain her thinking!
    I googled book reviews for Port Mortuary & found this page & I am so pleased to read all above opinions. I thought maybe I was tired & had missed something. I am worrying for her state of mind when she wrote this book. Something is not right!
    I doubt I will read to the end!

  • Aronel

    I am so glad to know that I wasn’t the only one who intensely dislike this novel: I kept thinking this must have been written by a different person. But if this were so, then it should have been aknowledged somewhere. Like the others, I have read most of her books, though not in the order they were written and I had no problem following her thinking. But this rambling, self-pitying but almost vainglorious, almost senile Scarpetta is a stranger to me.
    I almost never write comments about books that I read, this time I had to find a site to post a review.

  • Anne Maher

    I just finished this book last night. I’ve read all of Patricia Cornwall’s books and this last one was beyond disappointing. I really struggled in the initial chapters to actually continue reading to book but felt compelled to do so because I really expected some sort of twist to it. The references to technology really threw me off and I skimmed alot because I felt it was way to convoluted for a lay person to comprehend.
    I felt Scarpetta came across as paranoid, self pitying and pathetic.
    I felt so confused all the way through the book that I had to keep returning to previous chapters to see had I missed something. In reality the story could have been told in half the chapters than were actually in the book. Most of the chapters were simply her moaning, whinging etc. I am loathe to buy her next book.

  • Rhonda

    I want to know why Kate Redding did not narate this book? Was it because it SUCKED? The book was not at all in keeping with Cornwells other books. But sinse I listen to all of them, I get use to the same voise reading. This narator was not at all good for this book. She was not at all the voise of Kay!

  • James J Davies

    I have to agree with the review and most of the comments. This book was hard to get into and I felt like I was working hard to keep going. At the end, I felt nothing except relief that I didn’t have to churn through endless convoluted self-pity, needless paranoia, and one disappointment after another. I have read all of Cornwell’s books in the Scarpetta series and looked forward to each release. I’m almost afraid to look at Red Mist.

  • Drmarfran

    I’m late with my comments of this 2010 book by Patricia Cornwell, and I’m torn between wishing I had Reas these reviews before continuing through the book, and glad that I did finish it, because I started to become a detective myself while reading the book. I was trying to detect what the heck was going on, both with the plot(s)/ non-plot of the book and with Patricia Corrwell. I actually went online to find out if I missed anything, not so much because I cared, but because I spent so much time off and on over the past month reading this book.

    My deductive mind has concluded that several people wrote portions of this book, a techie, an ME, and perhaps one more person. Then someone, either one of these writers, or maybe even PC herself, came along and tried to thread their contributions together

    There seems to be no relationship at all between Kay and any of the characters in the book; just reflections about them and how they are pretty much wrong in their thinking and invading her space, either at the present time in the book or in the past while she was out of the office.

    The only real relationship that I saw evolving was with the dog.

  • NE Mary

    I love Ms Cornwells books but I continued to nod off every time I tried to start reading it again…seemed to drone on and on forever….Kay Scarpetta was not at all likeable and I keep wondering when her hubby is going to up and get tired of her whining and self pity and constant suspicion…hope future writing endeavors do not make these same mistakes…

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