Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell


There’ve been a string of murders in Richmond, Virginia with all the hallmarks of a serial killer, and the police are under pressure to solve the series. The only real clues that the police have to go on are that the killer is a non-secreter, has a substance on his hands that sparkles and glitters when the victims’ bodies are run under laser light, and the aroma of maple syrup left behind at one of the “scenes of the crime”…though at first, not surprisingly, the investigators believe that to be residue of something the victim ate. Kay Scarpetta, as Chief Medical Examiner for Richmond, is deeply involved in the case.

Two issues are complicating investigations: there is no apparent connection between the victims, in terms of appearance, lifestyle or daily pattern of movement (the usual prompt for serial killers) and it is suspected that the killer hacked into the CME’s database of case files and tweaked one bit of information in one of them. Needless to say, the ensuing restrictions limiting the CME’s ability to travel and interact with various city agencies hampers Scarpetta considerably in her work. As yet another woman dies, in a manner fitting the pattern of the previous murders, public feeling increases. Frantically sorting through all the information available seeking a pattern, Scarpetta realizes that all the women called 911 shortly before they were murdered, and the fluorescing substance found on the victims is borax, an ingredient in the municipal soap dispensers in the city of Richmond at the time…such as the bathrooms used by the 911 dispatch operators. Putting two and two together, she guesses who the killer might be; unfortunately, he guesses she’s close enough to a solution to arrest him about an hour before she realizes same, and breaks into her house.

It’s a bit odd coming back to the first in a series that’s been running so long; at 22 years old the first in Cornwell’s Scarpetta series is showing its age, though that certainly wouldn’t have been the case when it first came out. The scientific background is a bit dated in terms of computer technology and scientific background underlying criminal forensic investigation. It’s easy to forget now that there was a time when computer users had to dial up another computer, complete with twangy electronic sound effects, if they wanted remote access to information on the other computer. The Internet as we know it today was still several years in the future, after all. DNA identification is so routine now (at least if you believe the CSI franchise) that it seems a bit ludicrous for the forensic examiner to stop and explain what the stuff is. Dredging up memories of 1990, however, reminds me that yes: Cornwell probably did have to backtrack and do all that explaining about DNA to her presumed lay audience. The idea of a computer hacker altering data to bolster zir own position would have been equally novel, and the ability to log into a computer at another facility as exciting to a readership that in all probability didn’t even own a computer.

As for the book itself, I’m glad to see a tough single female who’s struggled to achieve what she has in what is even today a man’s world. I appreciate the fact that Cornwell didn’t attempt to sugarcoat either police investigation procedure, autopsy technique or the sexism still inherent in law enforcement; Scarpetta has to be both far better at what she does than the men around her and exceedingly circumspect and diplomatic in her interactions with her peers and superiors, if she wants to last long in her job much less advance. The plotting was decent though characterization rather fell by the wayside. Unfortunately, I’m disappointed by Cornwell’s decision to have the main break in the case be the fact that the killer suffers from a comparatively rare metabolic disorder, Maple syrup urine disease, which provides a crucial clue: under stress, people with this disorder (conveniently for the police!) exude an aroma resembling stale maple syrup and even more conveniently, the spouse of one of the murder victims came home close enough to the departure of the killer that he caught that distinctive smell.

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