Book Review

Postmortem

Postmortem

  • Author: Patricia Daniels Cornwell
  • Genre: Mystery/Thriller
  • Publication Date: January 9, 1990
  • Publisher: Charles Scribner’s Sons
  • Series: Kay Scarpetta #1

CONTENT WARNING: murder, gore, mention of rape, torture, homophobia and homophobic slurs, suicide, racism, mention of cancer, mention of death of a parent

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Postmortem introduces Patricia Daniels Cornwell, sure to become a major name in suspense writing, and her compelling fictional creation, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, chief medical examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

A serial killer is on the loose in Richmond. Three women have died, brutalized and strangled in bizarre murders in their own bedrooms. What do the women have in common? Nothing, it seems, not physical type, not occupation, not a particular neighborhood. The killer apparently strikes at random. The only consistency is that he commits his crimes early on Saturday mornings.

When Scarpetta’s awakened at 2:33 AM, she knows the news is bad. The murderer has struck again. His victim is thirty-year-old physician Lori Peterson, a Harvard Medical School grad who, with her young husband, had looked forward to a bright future. Now she’s dead, and Scarpetta fears that still more victims may follow unless she can come up with some new scientific evidence to help the police. 

It’s here that Postmortem leaves other crime novels behind. We go with Scarpetta into the medical examiner’s office, into the autopsy room. We look through the microscope with her as she uses research techniques to track the killer. We learn about FBI profiling, DNA printing, and how the police and state and federal agencies work for and against each other. 

And we learn to know Scarpetta, divorced, caring temporarily for her ten-year-old niece, Lucy, a bit leery of emotional involvement, even with an attractive man such as Bill Boltz, the Commonwealth’s attorney.

Scarpetta cares passionately about Lucy and about the integrity of her work. Not everybody is pleased to have a woman in the powerful chief medical examiner’s job. Somebody may even want to ruin Scarpetta’s career and reputation. Still more disturbing, somebody may be using her office to subvert the hunt for the serial killer. In the chilling, climactic moments of the novel, Scarpetta learns just how vulnerable she is.

With fine storytelling, convincing characters, a suspenseful, page-turning plot, and intriguing scientific and procedural detail, Postmortem marks the exceptional debut of one of the most talented crime novelists to come along in years.

It seriously pains me to say that this is an old book. It was published in 1990, which feels like it should be 10 years ago, but the more I read, the more I realized exactly how long ago that really was, and how much has changed since then. And my first clue as to how dated some of this material was going to be was the simple fact of the summary, when it referred to THE Patricia Cornwell as someone who is “sure to become a major name.” Fast-forward to the present-day, and she’s become a trailblazer for women in the mystery/thriller/crime fiction genre. In fact, I’m guessing that she invented the “strong woman running the morgue” sub-genre that spawned another one of my favorite authors, Karin Slaughter. 

While the book is gritty and harsh and deals with some serious subject matter, I fell in love with Dr. Kay Scarpetta. She’s no-nonsense, independent, smart, and assertive. I mean, nowadays it’s common to find women in positions of power, but back in 1990, this was groundbreaking. Right behind the cutting-edge technology that was presented in this book — although these were a bit more dated. PCs, computer disks, dial-up modems, and DNA technology were brand new technology that most of the general public didn’t know anything about, much less have access to. It’s like self-driving cars — they’re out there, but the vast majority of us don’t know how they work, haven’t seen one, and certainly don’t own one. Although some references had me experiencing some serious surprise — the portable tape player and the fact that people could smoke cigarettes. EVERYWHERE. As in, even in the morgue if they wanted to. But I loved that it didn’t wind up using offensive words, terms, or expressions that were accepted at the time, as I’ve seen in far too many books from the 90s.

All of the characters were well developed. None of them ever felt like they were just thrown in at the last moment, and it was hard to figure out who was behind all the events that were occurring. There were so many moving parts to the story, but it never felt chaotic and hard to follow. Scarpetta herself walks the tightrope between being professional and being an empathetic human being, and struggles to honor both sides of herself at times:

“I hated myself at times like this, cold, clinical, the consummate professional unmoved by another person’s pain.”

The story hooked me from the very first page. It starts out with Scarpetta getting called out to a crime scene in the middle of the night, and things snowball rapidly. One of my favorite things about the story is that it’s more than simply a medical examiner investigating a case. The plot involves Scarpetta’s personal life, her professional life, and how the different agencies involved in law enforcement both work together and against each other. I couldn’t stop reading, and found that it avoided the formulaic pitfalls that the genre can fall into. Maybe because there wasn’t a formula when this book was written. But the story kept cranking the tension up little by little until something had to give:

“He knew I wasn’t myself these days, that I was strung tight to the point of breaking. Maybe it was becoming apparent to everyone else, too.”

After finishing this, my first instinct was the run back to the library and grab as many of the next books in the series as I could hold. However, the library was closed for a blizzard, and I don’t have any more room on my TBR shelf at the moment for more books. So until I get through some more books, I’m just going to have to wait. But I’m definitely going to be reading more of this series.

People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn’t an upper limit.

Gasp Factor: 10

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