Depraved Heart by Patricia Cornwell (Morrow/Harper Collins, 2015)
“Give me a few strong Scotches and I'll admit I'm really not “normal” and never have been,” (p.3) states Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Massachusetts chief medical examiner . This is definitely an apt self-assessment of this most amazing character who “is not bothered by gruesomeness.” Of her profession Scarpetta goes on to explain, “In fact, we're drawn to it, fascinated, intrigued, and it's a good thing. Someone has to warn and protect those left behind. Someone has to take care of painful unpleasantness, to figure out the why, how, and who and properly dispose of rotting remains before they further offend and spread infection.” (p.3) Yes, thank God for the Kay Scarpettas of the world who dissect cadavers, weigh organs, calculate time of death, and put the puzzle pieces together to help others make sense of senseless death.
Scarpetta has been with us for twenty years now, made her first appearance in Postmortem, published in 1996. Patricia Cornwell, the author of the Scarpetta series, has just published her twenty-third book in this exceptional series, Depraved Heart, which is one of the most satisfying psychological thrillers to come out in a long time.
Kay Scarpetta, who was the first female chief medical examiner in Virginia, has migrated north to Massachusetts to escape hard memories of her position in the South. She has lived in Boston for a couple of years, and was followed by those closest to her; husband Benton Wesley, an FBI profiler, investigative partner, Pete Marino, and beloved geek niece and former FBI agent, Lucy.
The trouble with all of these characters is that they harbor secrets from one another. They do not communicate openly, which is really what makes the fact that Cornwell uses the first person narrative so intriguing. The intensely private Kay imparts her most secret thoughts to us, the readers. It's almost as if the Scarpetta novels are running interior monologues, and by revealing her thoughts to the anonymous reader, Kay is purging and working out her problems. And it is this technique that makes Kay Scarpetta seem so real and vulnerable.
Depraved Heart begins when Scarpetta is investigating the scene of deceased woman, Chanel Gilbert, who appears to have died in a freaky household accident, but the ever thorough Kay has some niggling thoughts about the peculiarity of the scene. Just as she is about to accompany the body to be autopsied, Scarpetta receives a disturbing video via her cell phone, a video of niece Lucy which appears to have been taken twenty years before when Lucy was a novice at the FBI training center at Quantico. Scarpetta knows immediately that this video could have been recorded and sent by only one person, her greatest nemesis, Carrie Grethen, who has been presumed dead for eleven years. Grethen, who was Lucy's trainer and seductress while Lucy was at Quantico, is a clever and vicious serial killer, and Kay is sick to her stomach with fear for Lucy upon seeing the video.
Only two months before Depraved Heart begins, Scarpetta was nearly killed by a spear, shot through the leg while on an underwater dive. Although she survived the attack, which she is certain was committed by the elusive Grethen, she is still physically diminished and struggles to do her job. She also hides the fact that she is in pain by pushing herself far beyond her capacities because she cannot let anyone else see her fragility. The worst part of the situation is that the FBI refuses to entertain that Grethen could possibly be alive. In fact, with so little hard evidence of Grethen having survived a helicopter crash, as readers we begin to question Scarpetta's insistence that Grethen survived.
Scarpetta rushes immediately to Lucy's immaculate estate to ascertain that Lucy, her partner Janet, and their adopted son, are safe, only to be blocked from entry onto the property by several burly and argumentative FBI agents, who are busy locking down Lucy's house. The scene between Scarpetta and the agents is particularly grueling and frustrating because Kay is so desperate to ascertain that Lucy is okay. Scarpetta's anger grows with each passing minute, and she understands that if she is so angry, Lucy, who is quick tempered anyway, may be out of control and do something stupid as her privacy is violated.
Kay cannot bring herself to ask Lucy if she has received any videos from Grethen, nor can she impart the problem to her old friend and co-worker, Pete Marino. Scarpetta's inability to confide in others sometimes makes the reader want to shake her and say, “Come on, woman. Open up.” She is at her worst with her husband, Benton, whom she adores, but has never quite trusted since he disappeared and was supposedly dead for seven years. And right now, with Lucy being investigated by the FBI for hoarding weapons in her home, Scarpetta believes that Benton knew about the plans to ransack Lucy's home and failed to share the information with her. Did Benton keep that a secret from her? And why doesn't Kay talk to him about the now several videos that Grethen has sent to her?
Scarpetta, who is so methodical and brilliant, always seems to be tightly wound and unable to relax. In many ways, Kay Scarpetta is like a machine. Her mind is always racing, except, as in the final scene of the novel, she is in the kitchen, offering wine and fine Italian food to her guests.
The pacing of a Scarpetta is fast and furious. The writing is compelling, and while the reader wants to find out the resolution of the story, one never wants a Scarpetta to end because it will be a whole year before the next one is published.
I have enjoyed each book in this series as it appeared, but I confess that when I got my Kindle, the very first thing I did was download the entire series and read it like one long novel. It was a delicious exercise because when you get one book a year, the details get murky and you forget how things happened over time. So reading the series in one go was a fabulous experience. Since completing Depraved Heart I'm actually considering repeating the exercise. After all, if I reread the series, it won't be a whole year until my next adventure with Scarpetta.
Yes, the Kay Scarpetta series is that good, and Depraved Heart is just deliciously, well, depraved.
Beth Moroney, former English teacher and administrator in the Edison Public School District, specialized in teaching Creative Writing and Journalism. Recently Moroney published Significant Anniversaries of Holocaust/Genocide Education and Human/Civil Rights, available through the New Jersey Commission on the Holocaust. A passionate reader, Moroney is known for recommending literature to students, teachers, parents, and the general public for over forty years. Moroney can be contacted at email@example.com.
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