My 13 year old son was spending lots of time reading graphic novels – he’s a bit past the YA novels available – and wondering how to get him into reading actual books, I gave him a copy of Mystic River for Christmas. He devoured it, even going into his room and shutting the door to read in peace. Since then he’s also become a giant Harlan Coben fan (he’s reading The Woods right now), but he seems to like serial killer novels, having also enjoyed Connelly’s The Poet. So, bad mother that I am (what kind of mom gives her 13 year old a copy of a Dennis Lehane novel, after all?) I of course thought he might as well read one of the true classics of the serial killer genre, Patricia Cornwell’s Postmortem. Well, that was another close the door and leave me alone read for him, and when he had finished it, it was of course lying around the house, so I thought I would re-read it, wondering if I would enjoy it as much as I did in 1990, when it was first published.
Lately the Scarpetta series has worn very thin for me – Scarpetta has become kind of annoying and crazy – but I remember feverishly reading the first 5 or 6 novels as they came out and enjoying them immensely. And Postmortem, a book I read when we first opened our store, was so scary to me at the time I hesitated to sell it to women living alone (I actually did caution a few to only read it during the day). Because this novel is based on a real case Cornwell worked on when she was working in the coroner’s office in Richmond, Virginia, I think it has a real resonance. Not only does it seem like something that could happen, it’s something that more or less did happen, though I am assuming the motives assigned to the killer in Cornwell’s book are entirely fictional.
This book has two schools of thought on the ending – did she pull the killer out of nowhere? Or not? – but there are no two schools of thought on the extraordinary narrative gift that Cornwell undoubtedly possesses in spades. There are few writers who tell a story in such an absolutely compelling way, and that makes Postmortem such a classic of its kind. As this is the first book in the series, Scarpetta, though somewhat beleaguered by the higher ups, has not attained the full blown paranoia of the later novels; her niece, Lucy, is still a pretty cute, precocious 10 year old genius, and the family details are kept to the rear of the story.
This series is of course responsible for all kinds of things like CSI on television and other writers who came later, like Kathy Reichs, Karin Slaughter and Val McDermid. And the reasons for this sincerest form of flattery are evident. Deftly weaving in the tools of the coroner’s trade in telling the story – Scarpetta works with very tiny pieces of evidence (and one of the big clues in this book is actually a smell) – she combines it with the story of seemingly randomly murdered women in the Richmond area, women murdered when they were home alone, asleep in bed. This is indeed a terrifying novel, and this early in the game, I still trust Scarpetta to get me thought the terror to the other side. If you haven’t read this book in a few years, it’s well worth another visit. Interestingly, the vital DNA evidence was still, in 1990, somewhat discounted as too new and too scientific for a jury to understand. And the ending? Since this seems like a ripped from the headlines kind of story, I had no problems with the killer’s identity, but that’s the kind of thing that will probably be debated by mystery readers for years to come.