Review: Depraved Heart

Depraved HeartI have lived a long tradition of receiving Patricia Cornwell’s released-just-in-time-for-Christmas books from Santa. Said tradition involves not so patiently enduring Christmas morning activities until it’s an opportune and appropriately not impolite time to steal away to read.

So it was, unsurprisingly, to Cornwell’s perennially popular character Kay Scarpetta that I turned when I was looking for a book to break my reading drought mere minutes after submitting my PhD thesis for examination.

I had little brain space and a lot of desire to read something a world away from academic papers. Handily, the prolific Cornwell had just released another Scarpetta instalment: Depraved Heart. (‘Depraved heart’ is apparently a legal term (at least, it is in the US) in which someone: is void of social duty and fatally bent on mischief; exhibits depraved indifference to human life.)

I will confess Cornwell has so many books these days I’m no longer sure if I’ve read them all. I couldn’t even remember the name of Depraved Heart to type it out for this review. And I was fairly confused when much of the book referred to an incident in which a serial killer had tried to kill Scarpetta in the book prior.

Which serial killer tried to kill her? I wondered. She has, after all, encountered more than her fair share over the book series’ years. Had I missed a book? As I progressed steadily through the pages I came to realise that yes, yes I had. I think.

I write I think because Cornwell follows a formula—a successful, satisfying formula that has kept readers such as me coming back and that has earnt her squillions, but a formula no less. And the themes throughout Depraved Heart were incredibly familiar.

For instance, Scarpetta, her husband Benton Wesley, and her niece Lucy Farinelli are each carrying the burden of secrets they can’t possibly share even though they know each other is entirely trustworthy and always has their back.

Also, everyone doubts Scarpetta’s memory/knowledge and she even begins to doubt herself, despite the fact that it always turns out she’s right. Seriously, she’s always vindicated, so why not just avoid the hassle and believe her in the first place?

So, while I still love Scarpetta, and Cornwell’s tale had the unenviable pressure of being the first fun book I encountered after three years of reading nothing but dry academic texts, Depraved Heart felt a lot like all build-up and not a whole lot of pay-off.

It commences with Scarpetta at the scene of a crime that looks straightforward, which of course means it’s not. Complicating the deceptively simple scene is that a video from Farinelli’s phone, which arrives under the guise of an emergency call. The video takes over Scarpetta’s phone (presumably such a thing is possible, although I’ve never heard of it) and disappears tracelessly once it ends.

On the video is footage of Farinelli in her then dorm from more than a decade ago. It was captured in secret by serial-killer-on-the-run Carrie Grethen, and in addition to Farinelli the video features a vintage, very distinct teddy bear Scarpetta rescued from a sad fate and gave to her niece oh so many years ago. Cue Scarpetta being glued to her phone to watch the apparently authentic video, unable to concentrate on the crime scene or tell anyone what she’s seeing.

Of course, familiarity breeds contempt and I may just have read a few too many Cornwell novels to be easily lured in. Regardless, she succeeded enough to make me read to the end. Medico-legal mysteries always intrigue me. I even enjoyed some aspects of the book, not least when they refer to Scarpetta’s medically equipped van as the Grim Reapermobile.

I was also entertained that—and don’t mean to be indelicate about—the Scarpetta character believing ‘a fox can’t smell its own’ is a minced idiom. She believes it should actually be ‘a fox smells its own hole first’. It’s not what you’re thinking. It was in the context of talking about crime scene smell being transported into the car she and cop friend Pete Marino are driving. It might be an Australian thing or just a me thing, but I’ve only ever heard ‘a fox can’t smell its own’.

Which makes an awkward (read: no) segue into saying I enjoyed this book, even if I wish there were more payoff. I acknowledge too that there might have been more payoff if I’d read the previous book and was therefore more invested in the events to which Cornwell regularly refers. Regardless, I’ll no doubt be sitting down to read her next book, whenever it arrives. My guess is just a few months away at Christmas.

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.