Book Review

The Body Farm

The Body Farm

  • Author: Patricia Cornwell
  • Genre: Mystery/Thriller
  • Publication Date: November 30, 1995
  • Publisher: Scribner Book Company
  • Series: Kay Scarpetta #5

CONTENT WARNING: murder, mention of sexual assault, gore, harm to an animal, homophobia, mention of child abuse

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Little Emily Steiner is dead. She left a North Carolina church meeting late one October afternoon and strolled along a lakeside path toward her house two miles away. Who met her on the path? Who followed her home, kidnapped her from her bedroom, and left her body by the lake days later?

It’s a puzzling and terrifying crime, reminiscent of the work of serial killer Temple Gault, who has long eluded Dr. Kay Scarpetta and the FBI’s Investigative Support Unit in Quantico, Virginia, where Scarpetta consults as a forensic pathologist.At the request of the North Carolina authorities, Scarpetta and her colleagues, Benton Wesley and Pete Marino, fly to the mountains near Asheville to assist. They find a mother in mourning and an investigation in disarray.

It’s particularly frustrating to work a homicide after the fact. An inexperienced pathologist missed or misinterpreted some of the evidence, leaving Scarpetta with inconclusive medical and laboratory reports, and photographs that only raise questions. What, for instance, is the strange mark on the child’s body that causes Scarpetta to plead with a reluctant judge for an exhumation? What is the meaning of trace evidence from a plant not indigenous to the Carolinas? And where did the killer obtain the unique blaze-orange duct tape, with which he bound Emily and her mother?

Most puzzling of all is the questions of when Emily died. She disappeared on the night of October 1. Her nude body was found a week later. Scarpetta’s obsession with time leads her to The Body Farm, a little-known research facility in Tennessee where, with the help of some grisly experiments, she might discover the answer. It is Scarpetta alone who can interpret the forensic hieroglyphics that eventually reveal a solution to the case as staggering as it is horrifying.

Scarpetta not only must search for a killer, she must endeavor to help her niece Lucy, who is accused of espionage while interning at the FBI’s highly classified Engineering and Research Facility in Quantico. And she must reach out to Marino, who retreats deeply into a strange relationship that may wreck his career and ruin his life. Scarpetta, too, is vulnerable, as she opens herself to the first physical and emotional bond she has felt in far too long a time.

This is Scarpetta even more realized and poignant than we’ve seen her before, tenacious and brilliant, tender and gentle. The Body Farm is a stunning achievement from a bestselling author at the peak of her powers.

Another amazing addition to an already brilliant series, and I am looking forward to continuing my journey through the rest of these books. They’re compulsively readable, with well-rounded, complicated, and flawed characters, and gripping plots with unpredictable twists and turns that keep me hooked.

In this book, Kay is challenged with an extremely difficult case in the backwoods of North Carolina. The whole town is rocked by this shocking crime, and in investigating the murder, Kay finds herself, once again, in danger. But this time, it’s threatening everyone she cares about as well as herself. And it causes her to struggle with her difficulty in expressing emotions, even to those who are closest to her.

“I seemed to be afraid for everyone I loved. Yet I was so reserved, so logical. Perhaps my greatest shame was that I could not show what I should, and I worried no one would ever know how much I cared.”

While finding evidence and interviewing locals, Kay makes it a point to always keep her victims humanized. It seems obvious, but when spending days with the dead and seeing the worst that humanity has to offer, I can imagine that one becomes desensitized to seeing murder, rape, gore, and horrible people. But Kay always tries her best to keep the victims upfront and protecting the living.

“The University of Tennessee’s Decay Research Facility was simply known as The Body Farm, and had gone by that name for as long as I could remember. People like me intended no irreverence when we called it that, for no one respects the dead more than those of us who work with them and hear their silent stories. The purpose is to help the living.”

Marino is struggling a lot in this book, even though he’s significantly less present and much more abrasive than usual. In the previous 4 books, he’s worked his way into Scarpetta’s inner circle of loved ones, and naturally, she’s worried about him. It’s always painful to see him acting self-destructively, and it’s even more pronounced in this book. Even though he’s isn’t featured except on the margins, mostly, he’s right up front in Kay’s thoughts.

“He did not talk until he was smoking, and it frightened me that he would not give us his eyes. He was so distant, it was as if we had never known him, and whenever I had seen this in the past with someone I had worked with, I knew what it meant. Marino was in trouble. He had slammed shut the windows leading into his soul because he did not want us to see what was there.”

We get a much broader view of Kay’s sister, Dorothy. Lucy’s mother isn’t portrayed very favorably in earlier books, and I was curious to see what she was like. I tried to keep an open mind, but every time she said something, I couldn’t help but hate her a little more. And I was so proud of Kay for how she handled Dorothy.

“I was struck again by how much I disliked my sister. It made no sense to me that she was my sister, for I failed to find anything in common between us except our mother and memories of once living in the same house.”

It’s never easy to read about a murdered child, but I felt that it was handled very sensitively. As always, I tried to add everything up and figure out who was behind the crime as I read. But once again, I struggled to figure out who committed it, and was surprised at every turn. This series has quickly become one of my favorites.

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: 5

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