Patricia Cornwell’s latest mystery, Flesh and Blood, marks the twenty-second novel starring medical examiner Kay Scarpetta. Since the series began, with the 1990 publication of Postmortem, the books have sold more than 100 million copies in 120 countries. Cornwell, famous for pioneering the genre of forensic thrillers, has produced a new addition featuring the core cast of characters her readers have come to know and love: Scarpetta’s husband, FBI profiler, Benton Wesley; her brilliant, daredevil niece, Lucy; and the endearingly rough-around-the edges homicide detective Pete Marino. From its opening pages, Flesh and Blood offers an adrenaline-fueled yet cerebral chase for a serial-killer that opens Scarpetta and her entourage to mortal danger and causes them to question whom to trust.
On the morning of her birthday, Scarpetta is enjoying the hours before she and Wesley are scheduled to depart for a weeklong Florida vacation. Bringing coffee to Wesley in the backyard, she notices something odd: seven shiny pennies dated 1981 are lined up neatly against an exterior wall of their Cambridge, Massachusetts, home.
Minutes later, Scarpetta receives a phone call from Marino that puts the brakes on her vacation. Only blocks away, a high-school music teacher, Jamal Nari, has been murdered by a sniper while unloading groceries from his car. By mistake, Nari had earlier been added to a terrorist watch list, and people—including President Obama—had rallied on his behalf when his name became notorious. Even before arriving at the crime scene, Scarpetta and Marino recognize similarities between this murder and two others, leading them to suspect there’s a serial killer at large.
But back to the pennies: a month earlier, on Mother’s Day, Scarpetta received a bizarre email from someone calling himself “Copperhead,” but she dismissed it as harmless. Then the pennies appear at her house. The email, which prefaces the first chapter, contains an overtly threatening poem that closes with these lines:
Lust seeks its own level Dr. Death
an eye for an eye
a theft for a theft
an erotic dream of your dying breath
Pennies for your thoughts
Keep the change
watch the clock!
Tick Tock Doc!
In signature Cornwell style, of course, there’s more to this story than a single homicidal maniac. And while there’s much to be said for good old-fashioned thrillers, Cornwell has crafted her Scarpetta series with a protagonist whose interior world offers as much intrigue as the murder cases in which she inevitably finds herself tangled. With Scarpetta, yet again, readers land in great company. Here is a woman—forever beautiful and astonishingly smart—who is caught in the middle of a maelstrom, tracking a murderer who’s also tracking her. And at the same time she’s sorting out, with graceful aplomb, her seemingly perfect yet complex personal life.
One of the innate challenges of a series like Cornwell’s is keeping the thriller stakes high with crimes that are weirder and at least as terrifying as those she’s solved before, and keeping the human-interest levels high with fresh personal drama. Scarpetta’s professional and private lives continue to be interwoven, so that pressure in one leads to pressure (and, usually, danger and uncertainty) in both. The good news about this tack is the potential for surprise and fresh conflict. The downside lies in the risk that matters will become so strange as to be entirely unbelievable.
For the most part, Flesh and Blood sidesteps this pitfall and succeeds in pulling readers along for another chilling, delicious ride. Scarpetta is no stranger to strange places: two books ago, The Bone Bed took place on a dinosaur dig, and Flesh and Blood has Scarpetta scuba diving in the Atlantic to comb through an underwater shipwreck that she believes holds clues to the killer’s identity. And separate from the whodunit storyline, in accordance with Chekhov’s famous rule that if a gun is introduced in the first act it must go off, readers are forced to wait from page one to the end of the book to discover how, exactly, Scarpetta will celebrate her birthday.
Sarah Norris holds an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College and has reviewed books for The Daily Beast, Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, and Village Voice, among other publications. She lives in Nashville.