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.

A Return To Form = A Return To Series

Port MortuaryThere was a time when Christmas meant a new Patricia Cornwell. I’d be so excited I’d even fork out for the hardcover—and I hate hardcovers. Then Cornwell went off the boil and I, well, fell off the Kay Scarpetta-worshipping wagon. Which is why I hadn’t realised Cornwell had penned some Scarpetta novels in recent years—I’d tuned out and the media had, arguably, stopped heralding her instalments’ releases (they were probably off spruiking Fitty Shades and its stable of spin-offs).

It’s telling that the cover testimonial reads ‘A welcome return to form for Dr Kay Scarpetta’ (read: We know she lost the plot a few books back, but trust us, it’s clear Cornwell’s publisher’s told her to cut the crap and churn out tales that fit with her tried-and-true Scarpetta formula). So, burnt by Cornwell in the past but ever hopeful that she’d resurrect the Scarpetta series to do it justice, I selected Port Mortuary from the shelf.

The book starts with Scarpetta completing a fellowship at a military morgue-like facility. Post-mortem examinations have moved high-tech and Scarpetta is learning how to incorporate CTs, MRIs, and the like into her work. She’s also about to head up a new facility that mixes private and military procedures and work. How that’s supposed to play out, no one quite knows, and I’ve got to admit that I was more than slightly incredulous that one of the book’s key pivots was that Scarpetta wasn’t there for the first six months of this highly experimental, endlessly complex facility was open.

In fact, some plot points and their justifications or threading together are tenuous at best, perhaps showing that:

a) Cornwell’s still a few degrees shy of boiling point
b) the Scarpetta series has just about reached its limits
c) Cornwell’s high-profile personal and business dramas, which include her suing former financial managers for mismanaging her money, have distracted from her writing
d)     I wasn’t paying close enough attention and missed some key explanatory text
e)     I’m a bit older, wiser, and more cynical in my approach to Cornwell’s books
f)      it’s a likely combination of a–e.

Scarpetta married her on-again-off-again and at-one-stage-thought-dead lover, Benton Wesley, a few books back, so the best Cornwell could do was milk a tired cliché: make Wesley seem to be keeping secrets from Scarpetta. That’s a plot device Cornwell was sure to pound us with at least six or seven times throughout the book—often when she was trying to make improbable plot leaps or to disguise the fact that the link between or explanation of said points was a bit wobbly.

Bone BedIt was a bit too convenient that everyone was, yet again, trying to keep Scarpetta out of the loop (convenience aside, it’s hard to fathom the characters hadn’t worked out that things ran more smoothly and crimes were solved when Scarpetta was kept abreast of all goings on). It was a bit too unbelievable that Wesley, her niece Lucy, and stalwart Pete Marino (AKA the only trio that she could possibly trust ever) were also conspiring to keep her in the dark.

And, without giving too much away, who the killer was turned out to be a little too clichéd and their motivations not well enough explained for my liking. Instead of wrapping up the book definitively, I felt that the killer’s unveiling revealed further plot weaknesses and gaps.

But for all my grumping, I relaxed into Port Mortuary (or as much as anyone can relax into a book about medical examiners and killers exacting horrors on unsuspecting victims). I’d missed Scarpetta in recent years, grieved over the fact that I thought she was gone (and I mean gone in the sense that the books were no longer worth reading rather than Cornwell’s decision to end the character’s journey) and there was enough in Port Mortuary to pique my interest and make me see the mystery solving through to the end. There was also enough to make me know I’ll select future Cornwell books from the shelf, as long as they come with assurances that they’re a ‘welcome return to form [or agreement not to stray from the accepted formula] for Dr Kay Scarpetta’.*

*It looks as though Bone Bed is the most recent. Published in 2012 (as opposed to Port Mortuary‘s 2010), Scarpetta is faced with the following:

A woman has vanished while digging a dinosaur bone bed in the remote wilderness of Canada. Somehow, the only evidence has made its way to the inbox of Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta, over two thousand miles away in Boston. She has no idea why. But as events unfold with alarming speed, Scarpetta begins to suspect the palentologist’s disappearance is connected to a series of crimes much closer to home: a gruesome murder, inexplicable tortures, and trace evidence from the last living creatures of the dinosaur age.

Unfortunately, it looks as though the annoying secret keeping by those closest to her is set to continue:

When she turns to those around her, Scarpetta finds that the danger and suspicion have penetrated even her closest circles. Her niece Lucy speaks in riddles. Her lead investigator Pete Marino and FBI husband Benton Wesley have secrets of their own. Feeling alone and betrayed, Scarpetta is tempted by someone from her past as she tracks a killer both cunning and cruel.

One, Two, Skip A Few…

The RetributionI picked up Val McDermid’s new book by pure chance at the airport bookshop the other day, stumbling across it while I performed a community service: covering up copies of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap*.

The latter’s a book that I’ve made no secret I think it truly awful and that has, much to my chagrin, just been re-released with a new cover to coincide with the release of the TV series that it has (again, much to my chagrin) just been turned into. I figured the fewer copies on display, the less likely unsuspecting travellers might buy it and be as bitterly disappointed as I was. Truth be told, I felt pretty good about doing it too.

The unexpected benefit of that early morning Slap effort was that I realised McDermid had a new book out. Entitled The Retribution, it sees everyone’s favourite serial killer Jacko Vance escape from jail to seek revenge on everyone’s favourite profiler Tony Hill and his sidekick Carol Jordan.

If you’re anything like me, you weren’t aware Vance had actually been caught and sent to prison. I’ve read and enjoyed a few of McDermid’s books but I’ve read them in entirely random order. Seems like it’s been a case of me reading one, two, skip a few…

I almost wrote an entire blog a few weeks back about how important it is to clearly communicate the order of books in a series—I’ve completely muddled myself on Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series and have missed at least two of the similarly titled books in the process.

But then I couldn’t think of much to say except ‘it’s really important to clearly communicate the books’ order’—if not in the books themselves, which I understand gets tricky or even impossible depending on when they’re published, then at least on the authors’ or publishers’ official website. Then I realised they’re pretty self-explanatory statements.

Either way, I was hugely surprised from the foreword to learn that The Retribution was McDermid’s 25th—25th?!—book. I’ve read maybe four of them, so clearly have some oeuvre visiting to do. The Tony Hill series is, from what I can tell, her strongest work (much like the Kay Scarpetta series is Patricia Cornwell’s strongest), but I like McDermid’s stories and style well enough to warrant reading the others too.

I’m off to order them now (and probably to sort through my hate mail from Tsiolkas and his publisher). It was a community service, honest.

*Note that I’m so grumpy about the book, I refuse to link to it on this here good bookstore lest anyone accidentally buy it.


We Can Eat Too Much Sugar

The Girl With The Dragon TattooCall it airport fiction, call it mass market fiction, or call it trash, the reading equivalent of quick-fix, craving-inducing simple carbohydrates are something we all secretly or not-so-secretly love. You know the ones. The Dan Brown bestsellers and the books that need not be named by the Mormon mom turned author that have tweens and adults alike aflutter.

But before you pooh pooh such ‘lowbrow’ reading matter that’s the literary likeness of riding the sugar high, please consider that, as with simple carbohydrates, which have been blamed for all manner of societal and waist-measurement evils, such reading matter not only has its place in our reading diet, it can do us some good.

We can eat too much sugar, but we can never consume too many books. Any reading is good reading, be it reading the sides of cereal boxes, determining epic fails on signs (those are a whole other blog in themselves), conquering such tomes as Ulysses, or devouring page-turners such as Twilight and The Da Vinci Code.

Because we all know what happens with simple carbohydrates. We eat them. We eat them fast. They make us high and happy. Then they’re burnt up by our bodies (ok, or stored, but let’s not go there) and leave us hungering for more.

It’s the hungering for more is where the door opens for us to consume some more substantial books and to continue to expand our reading tastes. Seriously. Why do we always make each other feel as though our reading habits must be something like a cross between eating only wholemeal and raw health foods (which are fine, but never as tasty) and taking medicine?

Hands up who did further research into the Illuminati and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper off the back of Dan Brown’s breakout bestseller? Hands up who ventured into unfamiliar reading territory to explore vampires and werewolves courtesy of Twilight? And hands up who is, like me, now firmly entrenched in Team Edward, although almost willing to have a foot in both camps based purely on the extraordinariness of Taylor Lautner’s abdominal muscles that were flexed at every available opportunity in the film adaptation of New Moon?

We’ve all been on crazy, carbohydrate-free diets and we know that they make us unhappy. We also know they end in a massive carbohydrate binge. The question is why we can’t use carbohydrates as part of—or a door to opening ourselves up to—a balanced literary diet? Because here’s the thing. I finally read the first book in the mass market series that has arguably stepped up to fill the post-Brown, post-Meyer void: Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

I found it less than ordinary. And that’s actually a good thing.

The book (and indeed the Millennium trilogy) has been a runaway bestseller, with relative non-readers around the world picking it up, enjoying it, and recommending it to others. The funny thing is, the book is slow. Interminably slow. I’m a voracious reader and I struggled with the first 300-odd pages of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I mean, sheesh, for a journalist who would have spent his life abiding by the inverted pyramid—or the rule that all the important information must be up front to draw readers in—Larsson completely inverted the inverted pyramid.

I think I could have skipped the first half of the book and been no worse off for it. I skimmed half the details about the Vanger family, which Larsson made far too large, with the various members blurring into similarity meh-ness. And the Lisbeth Salander character, the girl who sports the title’s tattoo, was unnecessarily (and boringly) difficult (I actually groaned when she stormed off for being complimented on having a photographic memory, then returned to the house when she was invited back in a pointless, irrelevant scene designed to demonstrate her different-ness). She’s a pale, caricatured character when you compare her with a strong, troubled, but interesting female such as Lucy Farinelli from Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series.

Yet in spite of these flaws, people—and, in my experience, most surprisingly non-readers—are enjoying The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and recommending it to others. Which is an excellent. If they are prepared to read through the 300-odd pages that should have been cut and put up with characters that either don’t enhance the narrative or that simply don’t quite work, they’re prepared to take a step up from simple carbohydrates to some more complex ones.

Indeed, rather than pooh poohing people’s enjoyment of white bread-like reads, we should be celebrating and encouraging their starting-somewhere simple carbohydrate-book diet.