Fiction: “From Potter’s Field” by Patricia Cornwell

potter's fieldHalf-way to Vegas, I continued my streaks of returning to previously-read authors and masochism by reading From Potter’s Field, the sixth Kay Scarpetta novel by Patricia Cornwell. It was weird – I was going to bring Kathy Reich’s Fatal Voyage, but decided against it because a) the mystery involved a plane crash, and I’m sorry, but that was too creepy to be reading on a plane, and b) I read Postmortem flying west to visit Emily a couple of years ago, and when I have to travel on a cross-country flight, I get the urge to read Patricia Cornwell.

Kay Scarpetta is the Chief Medical Examiner for the state of Virginia. She also consults with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (and look, I don’t know what’s with this particular branch of the Bureau and me and why I continually read books involving it; nor can I explain why I can read Kay Scarpetta and Gregor Demarkian and who-knows-what-else concerning the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, but I can’t get into Criminal Minds, in spite of the occasional appearance by Xander from Buffy). She is not married and does not have children. She has colleagues and co-workers, but she doesn’t really have friends.

Kay Scarpetta is an arrogant ice queen with a severe superiority complex. It is not an endearing quality. I’m not sure whether it’s Ms. Cornwell’s personality coming through like a Mary Sue or what, but there are moments where you just roll your eyes heavenward and keep reading, because holy god your mother is snoring loud enough to wake the dead and your iPod’s sleep playlist doesn’t soothe if you’re listening to it at full volume, so you may as well keep reading this tripe until it puts you to sleep or the sun comes up, whichever comes first (or maybe I’m projecting).

Scarpetta and her compatriots, Lieutenant Pete Marino of the Richmond PD and Benton Wesley (yes, that’s his name – he is referred to as ‘Wesley,’ which always makes me think of Alexis Denisof) are whisked away to New York City following another brutal murder, most definitely committed by their top fugitive, Temple Brooks Gault. Their team has battled Gault for at least three novels by this point (if I’m remembering correctly, his first appearance is in Cruel and Unusual; he takes a backseat in the middle book, The Body Farm), and apparently now, it’s personal.

As Ms. Cornwell does increasingly with her series, the serial killers/criminals continually make Scarpetta the emotional target of their crimes. It’s the psych-out: I’m going to kill all these people for you for you to find, and eventually, when you’ve finally gone crazy, I’ll come for you. And I’m not sure if it’s Ms. Cornwell’s own arrogance being projected onto her character and the character’s situations, but Jeebus God, everything is about Kay. Gault uses the computer program co-created by her genius niece, Lucy, to taunt the cops and apparently, to antagonize Scarpetta:

“God,” I said with a loud sigh. “You were lured right into it.” I stared off, almost sick. “It’s not just because of how good you are at what you do. It’s also because of me.”

“Don’t try to turn this into your fault. I hate it when you do that.” [150]

It’s not just you, Lucy; we all hate when Scarpetta does that.

Scarpetta also has a tendency to over-identify and/or over-emotionalize the bodies she examines (particularly those killed by violent means):

“You have to leave it outside the door like stinking crime scene clothes.”

But I could not. A day never went by when a memory wasn’t triggered, when an image didn’t flash. I would see a face bloated by injury and death, a body in bondage. I would see suffering and annihilation in unbearable detail, for nothing was hidden from me. I knew the victims too well. I closed my eyes and saw bare footprints in snow. I saw blood the bright red of Christmas. [41]

As noted above, Ms. Cornwell enjoys her prose on the purple side. Really, Patricia – Scarpetta sees blood the bright red of Christmas? Listen, lady, if Scarpetta was seeing blood the red of Santa’s suit at a crime scene, doc was seeing Robitussen. I’m pretty damn clumsy, and the blood I tend to leave behind is usually the red of a cranberry, or my shade of nail polish (OPI “I’m not really a waitress”). I do not bleed Rudolph’s nose, so, oy with the poodles already.

Oh, wait; she’s not done. Ms. Cornwell is also the master of the run-on-sentence that doesn’t really make sense:

The blood of this woman whose name we did not know brightly stained snow, and beyond the arena of her hideous death Central Park dissolved into thick, foreboding shadows. [29]

We stood silently scanning abandoned gurneys draped with empty body bags and hollow blue drums that once contained the formalin used to fill vats in floors where bodies were stored. [192-193]

The first sentence needs some editing in the first phrase, and the second, well; that one just needs a damn comma.

And have I mentioned that Kay Scarpetta is a snob? Her ancestors hail from Northern Italy (which she mentions no less than five times in this book – it is even a clue as to Gault’s whereabouts and motive), she cooks Italian food authentically and from scratch (she’s like, an even snottier Giada de Laurentiis), and she only drinks high-end Scotch, like Dewars. Whereas I, if I drank Scotch, would imbibe a lower-shelf version; perhaps Scotchy Scotch, a vanity label by a premier former anchorman.

This I loved: Scarpetta first insisted that she doesn’t drink beer:

“What are you offering?” …

“Diet Pepsi, Zima, Gatorade and Perrier.”


“You haven’t had it?”

“I don’t drink beer.” [132-133]

And then twenty pages later, she got all judgy about Marino being judgy about drinking beer:

[Marino] was in the Boardroom, where I tried a Zima and he ordered another beer.

“I don’t know how you stand that stuff,” he said, disdainfully eyeing my drink.

“I don’t know how I’ll stand it either since I’ve never had one before.” I took a sip. It was actually quite good, and I said so.

“Maybe you should try something before you judge it,” I added.

“I don’t drink queer beer.” [151]

There’s also the part where Scarpetta and Wesley are having an affair (Wesley’s the married one) and she doesn’t have any guilt over it. She just … *sigh* I can only read one of her books a year, because if I read them more frequently, I’d be tearing my hair out. Also, I’ve only read up through Cause of Death, which directly follows this novel, and I’ve heard that Scarpetta becomes increasingly annoying and the plots become increasingly ludicrous as the series continues. I predict that one of these books will become the Cornwell New Moon and will leave a dent in my wall.

One final quote to prove that The Sex Lives of Cannibals was truly non-fiction:

We wandered into the exhibit and did not have to wait in line, for few visitors were here in the middle of this workday. We drifted past Kiribati warriors in suits of woven coconut husks, and Winslow Homer’s painting of the Gulf Stream. [83]

At 2 a.m., listening to my mother snore like a non-Pythonated Lumberjack, I did this: \o/. And then put a pillow over my head to block the noise out and finally got some sleep.

Grade for From Potter’s Field: 2 stars


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