Sunday, December 18, 2011

RED MIST, a Kay Scarpetta Forensics Novel, by Patricia Cornwell

This is the nineteenth in the forensics detection novels that feature Dr. Kay Scarpetta, and it brings her back to the South, where readers first met her -- this time, visiting the Georgia Prison for Women. It's a strange thing for Kay to do. She's been invited to meet a prisoner there, the psychologically bizarre mother of Dawn Kincaid, who attacked Kay during a criminal investigation near Boston. The attack took place in the home that Kay and her husband, FBI agent Benton Wesley, share. And in a powerful sweep of plot, author Patricia Cornwell takes Kay Scarpetta back into the horrors of the attack and the triggers that led to it: factors that include a complete breakdown of Jack Fielding, the forensic examiner's second-in-command for so many years that their relationship has embraced two entire careers, one after another.

But all that is mere detail in what Cornwell provides with the disturbing opening of RED MIST: an ominous, frightening, horror-haunted entry into a "heart of darkness" of Kay's own, throbbing with Southern heat, jungle-like plant growth, and layers of threat from people who think they know her -- and believe an entirely different version of the attack sequence, one that makes Scarpetta herself into a cruel, malicious stereotype of a power-drunk woman.

It's hard to say that one Scarpetta book evokes more horror than another; each one finds a different way to do so. But this one, in which the unhealed psyche that the forensic examiner carried inside her falls victim to hints and allegations, gets creepy very quickly. And as a reader, what horrified me the most was the steady patter of pieces of verbal evidence falling on and around Kay, without her paying attention to them. Narrated by Kay herself in the first-person present, the novel shakes with Kay's uncertainty, collapsing ego, and lack of attention to the dark forces and twisted people around her.

For example, in the visit to the Georgia Prison for Women, the warden herself begins almost immediately to threaten Scarpetta, using as grounds for her verbal attacks a version of Kay that's distorted like a carnival mirror's effect. Curious comments from the warden insist that Kay's visit come after previous kindnesses to the prisoner -- someone Kay's never responded to in any way. And somehow, word of the prisoner's sexual advances to Kay's colleague is open news at this prison, even though it's never been made public. The warden hints that there are already threats to Kay as well, saying, "Seems like you might not be inclined to seek out anything unsafe after what you've been through." The implication is clear: Even this warden, Tara Grimm, is unsafe for Kay.

And soon the imprisoned woman, Kathleen Lawler, is scaring Kay as well, although it's hard to know how she could follow through on her delusions. Again echoing the tropical disorientation of "Heart of Darkness," or of George Smiley in a prison in India, questioning the man who would become his arch-enemy Karla, Scarpetta observes the incongruities around her, yet fails to seize on them and question them. Perhaps the most frightening moment in this lengthy prelude to the book's eventual action comes when the prisoner unthinkingly uses the term "them" in reference to what was, as far as Kay Scarpetta knows, one baby born while Lawler was in prison. Kay repeats the phrase, questioning it, but the moment floods past in a rush of other narration from the prisoner, and it appears Kay has missed a critical clue -- for many pages, and many attacks and deaths, yet to follow in the book.

Readers of the series will shudder with Kay at threats to her marriage to Benton Wesley; at implications that Pete Marino may have betrayed her; at an intrusion into Kay's life from a forceful woman whose connection to Scarpetta is through her beloved niece Lucy.

Right before reading RED MIST, I re-read book four in the series, Cruel and Unusual, which uses a very different narrative structure and a much less intense set of metaphors and moods. But it reminded me of why I've bought and read every Scarpetta novel at some point, in recognition of the force and emotional connection with which Cornwell endows her characters. In some ways it made it hard for me to give way to the author's insistent path in this newest book. And in others, it convinced me that no matter how uncomfortable I became, I had to push on, to discover what Patricia Cornwell had created this time.

Worth every moment, I think, and as the book settles in me, I feel even more strongly about it. An extra plus of this publication is that Cornwell is front-and-center lately in a more public persona than she's shown in years. It's been good to see her and listen to her on TV  and radio this month. And for an intriguing interview online, check this one with Janice Kaplan at The Daily Beast.

This book stays on my "re-read these" shelf. It's a keeper.

No comments: