Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Patricia Cornwell, PORT MORTUARY: Taking Military R&D Seriously

What would you do differently from the start of your career, if you could do it over again?

Kay Scarpetta, speaking directly in "first person" in Patricia Cornwell's 2010 PORT MORTUARY, wishes she'd never tangled with her first politically pressured case, 20 years earlier. The pinch of power and control that caught her has embedded her in an unhealthy relationship with a powerful general for all these years -- and her latest six-month term at a "port mortuary," a location that receives dead soldiers from the distant fields of war as they are shipped home, has kept her away from controlling her own field offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts. More specifically, that same manipulative general has kept her away from home, from her own work, and from her ex-FBI husband, Benton Wesley.

In nearly five hundred pressured pages that resemble a never-ending conversation (poor Kay never even gets a nap for more than 30 hours), the forensic investigator peels back layers of murder and threat, while also peeling back the skin and muscle of her own professional life. Stopping her from cleaning up the gangrene that's crept into her workplace is a profound fear: the fear that her husband won't be able to respect and love her if he knows the truth of her first case.

Probably the hardest part of reading PORT MORTUARY is carving out time in one's life to keep the pages turning. This is not a book easily put down. Dr. Scarpetta's endless attentiveness and exhaustion compel a reader's attention, or at least they did for me. And I found the focus on Kay's self-autopsy to be far healthier and more interesting than many an earlier Cornwell volume that pits the death investigator against sickeningly warped criminals determined to torment her and damage her. In this case, she's not really the target, except for one short action scene that Benton quickly resolves; instead, she's confronting the damage that circled outward, into "her" people, from the evil she once allowed to pass unacknowledged, unconfronted.

A delight of the book is that along with a self-autopsy, Scarpetta applies her lens to her marriage, with its embedded and necessary secrets. After all, who expects to know what an FBI spouse really does, 24 hours a day? But what Scarpetta and Benton Wesley clearly do need is the capacity to trust each other in spite of their secrets, and the case in progress tests whether either or both of them can continue to give that trust -- and deserve it.

So although the plot twists depend on facing the nasty inventions that the military forces of the US and other nations are developing -- a plunge into research and development of technical spy devices, embedded hormones, war-mood chemicals -- the horrors that Scarpetta and niece Lucy perceive among those military secrets are less powerful than the rot and infection in Scarpetta's life. At long last, she's got to scrape away the fouled matter, cut down to where the tissue is healthy, give up some blood for the sake of a clean wound.

There's a shred of conversation between Benton and Kay near the end of the book that nails the causes of the pain here, as well as the source of risk:
"Christ." Benton takes a swallow of Scotch. "It's always the one thing you think doesn't matter, the one thing you think can wait."
"I know. That's almost always how it works out. The detail you don't want to bother with."
Kay is acknowledging that she and Benton still speak the same language, have the same drive toward truth at any cost, toward justice at personal price. And she's confirming that even though they can't always know each other's work-related secrets, they do know what forces are operating on each of them. There are good possibilities in this recognition.

Cornwell's written a forceful and effective capstone to Scarpetta's career. And if we readers can't really buy into Kay's fantasy life of cooking and walking the dog in Cambridge for the forseeable future, well, that's our problem. Kay and Benton have enough issues of their own. A resolution of some sort is going to have to happen, as the mastermind behind the latest losses is finally revealed.

A final aside: Despite the cruelty and politically driven dishonesty that Cornwell points out in Kay Scarpetta's experience of military "necessity," this author is clearly a supporter of American forces and the veterans of combat; check out her website for her latest efforts on their behalf.

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