Cornwell Abandons Forensics and Scarpetta in ‘At Risk’

At Risk
Ying Wang

Patricia Cornwell is the finest crime writer of her generation, but the crime is an afterthought in “At Risk.”

There is age-old precedent for great artists to eventually abandon their genre and try to conquer something new. Their mastery of one art form fills them with confidence that their genius is transferable to other categories.

Success happens, but the failures are more memorable, and more spectacular. The facial contortions and annoying speech patterns that made Jim Carrey funny did not work in dramatic fare like “The Majestic,” and Michael Jordan’s endurance and sweet stroke did not propel him to stardom in baseball. Some talents simply do not hold up well under experimentation.

Patricia Cornwell and her amazing ability to write crime novels is another case in point. Cornwell has slowly abandoned the tight, protagonist-focused style that made her prize-winning debut “Postmortem” so compelling. Instead, her last few books have adopted a multiple-viewpoint narrative method that omnisciently probes the minds of both heroes and villains.

Complex characters and their interactions have always been at the heart of the author’s work. However, a decade ago, the spotlight was firmly fixed on Virginia chief medical examiner Kay Scarpetta and her small circle of friends. Cornwell, in the first person, relayed Scarpetta’s fascinating observations and judgments. Cornwell gave us the world through the eyes of a smart, powerful woman chafing against the profoundly masculine and often misogynistic law enforcement culture.

Beginning with “Blow Fly,” Cornwell shook up her wildly successful formula. Scarpetta no longer drove the narrative. The supporting cast were no longer filtered through the chief, but had voices of their own. And, most surprisingly, Cornwell offered the perspective of the criminals, whose disturbing fantasies are rife with lust, murder, and mutilation. The difference between the new and old styles is akin to the dissimilarities between “Law & Order,” which only follows the police and district attorneys, and the spin-off “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” which incorporates the actions and motivations of the criminal offenders.

To consciously signal these significant changes, Cornwell wrote “Blow Fly” in the present tense and the third person. The new books are more voyeuristic, but they lack a narrative cohesiveness, always jumping from one character to another. As a result, the plotlines are more tangled and fantastic. And while some might delight in the sociopathic psyche, the long passages about lurid homicidal thoughts and sweaty erections occasionally teem with overkill. For obvious reasons, Cornwell is also less convincing when she writes about the inner workings of serial killers compared to the minds of career women.

Nevertheless, the new books overcome these deficiencies on the strength and psychological complexity of the Scarpetta character, which won the 1999 Sherlock Award for being the best detective created by an American author. The older books had established a long history for Scarpetta, and her presence—her insecurities, frustrations, and undeniable resolve—is familiar and reassuring. Cornwell fans care about what happens to the beloved Dr. Kay. When Cornwell has left Scarpetta on the sidelines in the past for novels like “Southern Cross” and “Isle of Dogs,” she has faltered.

However, it is unclear whether Scarpetta could have saved Cornwell’s latest work, “At Risk.” The short novella, which was originally a 15-part serialization in The New York Times Magazine, can be seen as the culmination of the gradual shift away from the “Postmortem” standard. Cornwell is the finest crime writer of her generation, but the crime is an afterthought in “At Risk.” An old woman was murdered a long time ago in Tennessee, but the mystery is easily solved without the thorough forensics that made Cornwell famous. The author does not explore the thoughts of the killer this time, mainly because the murder does not really matter.

Instead, the book focuses on the political maneuvering and petty-turned-deadly squabbling between the ambitious major characters. The ruthless female district attorney, Monique Lamont, eyes the governor’s mansion, while equally cutthroat men try to destroy her aspirations. Eager for positive publicity, the district attorney creates the “At Risk” cold case initiative, which uses DNA analysis to solve old crimes. Naturally, other savvy political operatives work hard to bury her.

Cornwell’s hallmarks are everywhere in this novella. For instance, Harvard is prominently featured. Characters meet at the Faculty Club—“a handsome Georgian Revival building with a grey slate roof”—and the Fogg Art Museum, where, in real life, Cornwell has helped bring paintings by the man she claims was Jack the Ripper. And of course, the token Harvard student answers a question with “unnecessary snottiness.”

The novella also includes other recurring favorites: psychics (“All That Remains”), neglected animals (“The Last Precinct”), and power-mongering women (“The Black Notice,” “Unnatural Exposure”). And the theme of male resentment against career women is constant and compelling in Scarpetta novels.

But “At Risk” never mentions Scarpetta, a fleshed-out character who inspires care and concern. The hero is the disappointingly empty Massachusetts state police investigator Winston Garano. He is handsome, a sharp dresser, and a rescuer of abused dogs, but the novella is too short and scattered to make him more than just a smart, pretty face.

The short length of the story might be the problem. Scarpetta and friends had many books to acquire their distinct personalities; “At Risk” is just over two hundred pages with generous line spacing. Fellow crime writer Michael Connelly, who is just beginning a 16-part serial in the Times Magazine, has said that he will include additional chapters when the story is released in book form, according to his website. Cornwell certainly could have used a few extra pages.

Then again, Connelly is featuring his long-established and popular character, gritty Los Angeles detective Harry Bosch.

The problem with “At Risk,” though, extends beyond just the absence of Scarpetta. Cornwell continues to surge off the solid tracks that she laid over 15 years ago. The forensic analysis (perhaps made too commonplace by television) now takes a back seat to internal monologues. Cornwell should return to her roots: science and Scarpetta.

In a strange way, “At Risk” is a fitting title for this latest work. Cornwell is at risk of losing touch with what made her popular and won her so much well-deserved praise. Jim Carrey realized his dramatic shortcomings and scored with “Bruce Almighty”; Michael Jordan went back to winning basketball championships with the Chicago Bulls.

A “Postmortem II” by Patricia Cornwell would undoubtedly be just as successful.

—Reviewer David Zhou can be reached at dzhou@fas.harvard.edu.

At Risk
By Patricia Cornwell
Putnam Adult
Out Now