Tuesday, April 14, 2009

BLOW FLY by Patricia D. Cornwell

I have now listened to 12 of Patricia D. Cornwell's 16 Scarpetta mysteries. Though my two worst high-school classes were home ec and driver ed, I spend much of my life in the kitchen or behind the wheel. Keeping a long series going is a great way to keep myself going as well. But I'm done with Scarpetta for now.

I had been warned that the Scarpetta series is graphic and gruesome. "Oh well," I thought, "I'm a big girl. I can deal with it." And it really wasn't all that hard to deal with--the bloodiness was mostly in the forensics lab where Scarpetta, chief medical examiner of Virginia, explored the body cavities of the dead. Not lunchtime material, maybe, but technically interesting. Besides, the plots moved right along, and the characters--feisty Scarpetta; her conflicted niece, Lucy; bigoted, vulgar, but good-hearted Pete Marino; enigmatic Benton Wesley--quickly became my friends.

In The Last Precinct (book 11), however, Cornwell made a big change: she switched from the previous books' past-tense narration to a breathless present tense. Essentially a retrospective on Black Notice (book 10), The Last Precinct deals more with Scarpetta's inner turmoil than with outside events, and present-tense narration can be an effective way to get into a character's mind. Still, I thought, the story suffered--but maybe Cornwell would find her footing in the next book.

And then in Blow Fly (book 12), the tone changed entirely. Still using present tense, Cornwell began writing in the third person with an omniscient narrator. For me, that was the coup de grĂ¢ce. This book, though dealing with the same characters as the two previous books, had become almost unlistenable. I listened anyway, feeling sick. Why, I wondered, should the narrative shift make such a difference?

And then I understood: from the God's-eye view, everything is visible and everything is present. I could see Scarpetta (though not as often as I wished), but I could also see murder, kidnapping, torture, and dismemberment taking place on stage, from the viewpoints of the people committing these acts. I could enter into the minds of several sociopathic, narcissistic, thoroughly evil characters as they plotted new crimes. I did not feel terror--I knew Scarpetta would emerge relatively unscathed to star in the next books--but I felt extreme revulsion.

Nevertheless, I went to the library and checked out book 13, Trace. It too uses present tense and an omniscient narrator. Soon I was in the mind of yet another psychotic criminal, one described by a reviewer as "one of the creepiest villains to come along since Silence of the Lambs." Enough! I said, and pulled the cassette out of the player (our car is very old).

The God's-eye view is not for the faint of heart. Even God got tired when he looked down and "saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually" (Gen 6.5). According to the biblical tale, that's when he decided to drown nearly the whole lot of us.

I'm going to return Trace to the library in a few minutes. Sometimes one should avert one's eyes.

1 comment:

  1. I liked your viewpoint. I had to give up on Cornwell also. I enjoyed the "old" Scarpetta as an exciting escape from my reality. The introspection was boring and showed no hope. Can we please have the old style? I am surprised Cornwell keeps writing in this mode - I cannot believe it is actually selling as well as the original.

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