California Literary Review

The Scarpetta Factor by Patricia Cornwell

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November 4th, 2009 at 11:58 am

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The Scarpetta Factor by Patricia Cornwell
The Scarpetta Factor
by Patricia Cornwell
Putnam Adult, 512 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★½☆☆

Try A Little Tenderness

The title of Patricia Cornwell’s new novel, The Scarpetta Factor, is rather telling, and highlights the direction its author has been moving in for some time. The early Scarpetta novels which made her famous had titles like Postmortem, Body of Evidence, Cruel and Unusual and Cause of Death. Good titles. Possibly a little generic, but that was the point of them: they located the novels firmly in a field which Cornwell did so much to enrich. (Just how much can be demonstrated by picking up one of the unsatisfactory wave of sub-Scarpetta novels which followed her. After Cornwell, an absolute shower.) These days, however, she writes novels like Scarpetta and The Scarpetta Factor. If the latest title sounds like Robert Ludlum on a slow day, it’s a pretty fair reflection of her tendencies at the moment.

The novel is a real pageturner, put together with Cornwell’s accustomed skill and detail. She handles multiple plot-lines deftly, and withholds just the right amount of information from the reader to make the narrative interesting as well as exciting. She’s developed an enjoyable way of beginning novels in the middle of a story, letting her audience watch the characters carry out conversations and actions which they don’t yet understand, but which will be unravelled as the book continues. This must be an even harder trick than it looks, and The Scarpetta Factor is driven by the reader’s need to find out what the heroes know, as well as what the villains have done. To manage this structure, without simply boring the audience in the early pages by talking over their heads, Cornwell has become even surer in her handling of free indirect discourse. She’s been sliding in and out of her characters’ heads more frequently over the last few novels, and in The Scarpetta Factor it feels a lot less lurching. In many ways her style has opened out – the books no longer cover a singe series of crimes, and they explore their stories through a number of viewpoints.

With this broadening, however, comes a diffuseness and a loss of friction. Too many of the crimes in The Scarpetta Factor are simply attempts to “get at” its eponymous heroine. We’re offered yet another lengthy conspiracy by shadowy forces who hate Scarpetta herself, and have mobilised substantial reserves of time and money over more than one continent in order to bring her down. The same kind of motiveless malignity is directed at Benton and Lucy, Scarpetta’s husband and niece. Lucy, whose career in the past has taken in most of the named, and several un-named, forces of the US state, is now revealed to be staggeringly rich as well. A swindle which deprived her of hundreds of millions of dollars is treated in the novel as a personal slight, not as the likely cause of financial hardship. As Cornwell moves further into this rather hum-drum international-conspiracy-thriller territory, her writing pays the price. She certainly didn’t use to churn out sentences like Dodie checked into the hospital and was breathing down Benton’s neck, and the toying and torturing continued while laughter rose to the rafters inside the medieval house of Chandonne.

These flights of blandness are balanced by some obvious attempts to anchor the narrative. The book is studded with references to Bernie Madoff and “Ponzi schemes”, and the phrase “in this economy…” appears frequently enough to attract attention. Very few of the characters seem to be actually affected by the situation, though, and it seems more like lip-service than a genuinely felt element in the novel. When Lucy can afford to drop a nine-figure sum from her portfolio without altering her lifestyle, and Scarpetta is being begged to star in her own TV show, the references to hard times feel rather perfunctory. More effective are the food references: as with the last novel, The Scarpetta Factor ends with a sort of secular communion, gathering all the heroes together to eat together and reassert what they share. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Italian cooking is a key element of the Scarpetta series, and it works again here to ground the fictional world.

The Scarpetta Factor is not a bad book: it’s exceptionally well crafted, and shows real flair at several points. The passages in which Scarpetta’s memories are jogged by the smell coming from a parcel are very stylish and thoughtful at the same time. There’s one striking gap, however, which only becomes obvious once the novel has been finished: there’s no room in it for the victims. Kate Summerscale’s superb book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher has an epilogue in which she writes of suddenly realising that, whilst examining every facet of the case and its ramifications, she had nearly forgotten the murdered child at the centre. Scarpetta and her band of heroes loom so large in The Scarpetta Factor that there is little room for anyone else, or for any motive not directed towards them. The victims are slipping out of Cornwell’s writing, and an important tenderness is going with them.

  • Andrew

    Your last point is excellent.

  • Jo Ann Fredin

    So disappointed. Read the whole Scarpetta series in order and was anxiously awaiting this new book. Too many angry/moody people, and too much minute by minute detail.

  • mums

    I totally agree. This book was an enormous disappointment. I have enjoyed the Scarpetta books… the characters seemed quite real. But this book (which was about twice as long as it needed to be) was just plain boring. The last portion of the book didn’t even seem to belong within the same jacket as the first part but at least it finally started to show some of Cornwell’s excellent story telling. I wondered all though the book if she shouldn’t have fired her editor! (That is assuming an editor was blamable for the lack of continuity) I finished the other Scarpetta novels wishing for more. I finished this one wishing I hadn’t wasted so much time.

  • Linda Champion

    I ditto your criticism! Spot on! I only finished the Scarpetta Factor because I’d already invested so much time in it. Kept hoping it would get better. To much time spent inside the characters heads. I want some action back!

  • Sam

    I couldn’t agree more. I have loved the previous books and generally, once started, don’t put the book down until finished. This time, I have spent about two weeks trying to plough through all the analytical twaddle and have given up. I think, I just don’t care anough about the charcters to waste any more of my time being in their heads. Such a shame.

  • http://idon'tknow Karen

    I totally agree with all the above.. I feel Scarpetta is turning into a cold robot and miss the days in which she used to sit back with a wine and cook some pasta while reflecting over events…the books are becoming less human and warm as they go along I feel. I have been thinking this way over the past few books actually.

  • Kib

    I haven’t read this book yet, but I have become more and more disappointed with each book I have read in her series. I miss the forensics and mystery from her earlier books. In her earlier works, I enjoyed reading about her morgue days and investigating whodunits? Now its more about whether Scarpetta is depressed or not.

  • Chris Hill

    I wasted my time and money on such dross. My liking of Patricia Cornwall has gone. I wondered at times if she even wrote it!!

  • Megan

    Agree with the other comments here – have been an avid Scarpetta fan for many years but I am struggling through this one. She doesn’t assume any intelligence of the reader, explains too much in a very unrealistic way, such as within dialogue between the characters. Characters who already understand the information, so it makes no sense why she would explain the intricacies in so much detail.
    And I am getting bored with Scarpetta being perfect, no flaws to speak of, never an error in judgment. It is getting beyond the realms of believability that all of these inter-connected people are obsessed with a Medical Examiner.

  • Ron

    I’m reading her last book ‘Scarpetta’ at the moment and am not all that impressed. It is nothing like her older books. I think I’ll give her latest one a miss.

  • K hopkins

    I love Patricia Cornwell. I have read and re-read all of her books. The Scarpetta Factor was quite a disappointment. One the best things she typcially does is character development. She had a perfect opportunity to work more with Lucy in this book, it was left open….In the past, I have fallen in love with her cast of characters. This book left too many open stories and unanswered questions. The bottom line, the mystery was missing and solved with the crazy list of responsible people. I thought that maybe, since I am not a literary genius, I was missing something. But, after reading the comments, I felt a little better. Perhaps,there was some brilliance in the numerous characters, but a professor would need to evaluate that. The complicated web of characters was, likely, not be appreciated by the average reader. I am looking forward to Patricia getting back to basics and working on the characters and really making the reader think.

  • mark

    60% read so far and quite frankly I am bored with it, I agree the victim’s aspect is totally ignored and way too much internal dialogue.
    Will I finish it, maybe, but I am not drooling over turning every page, a pity cause I like her characters, Kathy Reichs is so much more appealing I am afraid.

  • Lesley

    I am so disappointed in Patricia Cornwell. Her books have progressively become more and more depressing, weird-character based, and unreal. I cannot even imagine this character Lucy, and am having a harder and harder time even imagining (by which I mean, getting the characters from the written word) Kay and Benton.

    And is it just me, or is the typeface more dense and the book just so closely set and in such long chapters, that it’s just plain hard to read.

    Sorry Patricia Cornwell – I was a HUGE fan of your earlier novels, but you lost me in the last 2 or 3…….

  • Tammy

    Wish I had read the comments before the book. I’ve read them all, loved them all. This book was probably one of the worst books I have ever read. I would sware she did not write it. The character conversations were well . . . more than boring. They were all so miserible and depressing, their thoughts wandering and confusing. I gave up reading it. More than half way through and I’m still not sure what the mystery is. Some actress whose name has been mentioned is missing. That’s all I get so far. The story jumps and not in a good way. Basically from one sentence to another you change scenes, conversations and locations. Huh? Not sure I’ll bother with the next one. At least I’ll read the reviews first.

  • Nuge, Derby

    Just a way of putting 500 and some pages between two covers, over discriptive for no reason, unless your a cook and want the recipies.
    little or no real story line.
    It seems that she cannot do a book with Scarpetta being attacked somehow.
    Is this a reflection on her own life.
    Shall never read another Cornwell book again, thoroughly disapointed!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Melissa

    My other complaint is that the characters have ceased to develop. Or are developing so slowly that you can’t tell the difference. Benton is agonizingly in love with Scarpetta but still won’t talk to her. Lucy still relates to everyone the same way. Marino still relates to women and Scarpetta the same way. You can have characters stay true to their personality and past experiences while still have them move forward.

    Maybe it’s because the timeframe of the last two books has been just a couple of days. I still don’t believe that people can accomplish as much in 24 hours as they are written.

  • Renee

    I guess she could have added some aliens to make it more believable…the brilliant Kay Scarpetta who now works in the NYC morgue (gratis mind you…)still had the French SeanDunne crime family plotting to take her down. This family has been around so long that I have forgotten exactly why Kay Scarpetta is such a target for them. Lucy’s character is not even interesting anymore, she is gay, which is like a big white elephant on every page. She has no depth, or warmth or humor. The Benton character is about as interesting as a doorknob, why anyone as spectacular as Kay Scarpetta would waste her time on him is a mystery to me, he has not had 1 second of fun in years and the entire story in this book told about a Dr Agee doing some inspeakable thing to Benton, but it was never revealed, or clarified. Crazy Dodie Hodges is still walking around as a threat to Scarpetta and Benton’s happiness…

    The characters have stalled and no one ever has a deep conversation in PC’s books, just a collection of people thinking thoughts about each other and no one talking….

  • Marie

    Oh my. I finished the Scarpetta Factor in 3 days, hoping that it would get good at some point. The only thing that Cornwell accomplished was to keep me frustrated to NOT put the book down, in the longing to find out the secrets. But other than that, it was so un-enjoyable to read. I found myself rolling my eyes and saying out loud “oh this is crap.” I feel like I need to go back and reread Postmortem just to cleanse my brain of this book.

    The book should be renamed the “quotation factor” because most of the book is dialogue and meetings. I felt like saying “blah blah blah” and I’ve had enough of the listed sentences. Sentences mostly made by Benton that mention one thing, but also list several other related things. I felt like Benton was rambling in most of his scenes, just to hear himself talk. And often the dialogue would jump from character to character, but only revealing which character was speaking AFTER the quotes. So you would read the words, picturing a certain character speaking, only to find that someone else was speaking, and that their inflection was a different tone than you had earlier guessed. I would have to reread those spoken sentences at times.

    This was not a mystery at all but a book of several meetings over 24 hours that so happens to solve 2 serial murders, a string of serial bank robberies, an attempted bombing, a suicide and bring down the mob all in that same 24 hours.

    Way too much hooplah and not enough substance.

  • Tom

    I agree with other comments here. What a waste of time to read this incredibly bad book. I wonder if I could get a refund on the $10 spent on it.

    As has been conjectured this does not look like Ms. Cornwell wrote a lot of this book – from the way you get jerked around there must be ghost writers involved. I agree with what CHRIS HILL (Dec 9) says, especially his comment about it being dross. Perfect description.

    As MARIE (Sept 19) states, “this is crap”. I also agree, this is my last Cornwell book. I wouldn’t read another one even if it was free.

    Kathy Reichs is much more interesting and enjoyable.

  • Eileen

    I totally disagree with the reviewer Jem Bloomfeld when he says this is a page-turner. It was a disappointingly boring book.

  • Ruthanne H

    Just finished this book and had to get online to find out if it was just me.
    Agree completely that it was a total waste of time. Reads like Cornwell herself has become self-absorbed and paranoid. Far too much technical crap; she’s clearly into her gadgets and wants to bend your ear about it. What a total bore. Never again. If this had been a first novel it never would have seen the light of day.

  • Olivia

    Ruthanne, same here. I wondered how I could be so flustered reading a book. I made it to the end, but also wondered why I read it. It gets a great big “eh” from me.

  • Carmen

    It is amazing for me to believe how a successful author can occasionally write such a boondoggle as this book was. The first Cornwell book I read was “Isle of Dogs,” and I was so turned off by it, I made a mental note not to bother with this author again. But then I was curious to see if other readers felt as I did, so searched for reviews. Sure enough, I was not alone. But what I did find was many supporters who praised other work which included Kay Scarpetta and Lucy. So I ventured out again, gingerly, and found I really liked many of her other books. Now this RAMBLING, RAMBLING, RAMBLING rose. I really could not stick it out to the end, so fed it down the library tubes.

    But I do not believe in being critical without offering some positive thought. Why don’t you (author and editor), get several random regular Cornwell readers (not your bosom buddies) to read a new book while still in manuscript form? That might help avoid another piece of useless junk like this one.

  • Donna

    Marie I agree, I’m on page 467 and I want to throw this book out the window.

  • Sophie

    My first Scarpetta book was the last one “Scarpetta” and while it wasn’t really good I still enjoyed it. Read some reviews about Cornwell and decided to give her a second chance and I really wish I read some reviews before wasting my time on this.

    Benton was insufferable and I’m almost shipping Marino/Scarpetta despite he assault her in previous books, that’s how much I can’t understad why Benton and Kay are together.

    And Lucy it’s unbelievable.

    And Marino totally needs to take Benton down a notch or two. He is by far the most human in this book.

    I just got a copy of Postmortem and this is the last time I expend a penny on Cornwell if the book is as bad as this one.

  • Brian

    The last couple of books in this series have been a disappointment to me. The tone of the characters are more and more becoming drab and unappealing to spend time with. This story is more about the thoughts and feelings of the main characters. They share a great set of feelings; anger, frustration, sadness and they all seem hopelessly depressed!

    Give me more of that!

    I read or listen to books to escape these everyday pitfalls of life, not to be emersed in them for endless hours.

    The storyline has always been dark, I realize that and that part is appealing.

    I guess what I am referring to is the overall glib mood that everyone seems to have, not one main character is remotely happy at any point in the story.

    The ending seems disjointed from the rest of the story when they all seem to come together at the end to eat a roomful of food that Scarpetta cooked.

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