Dr. Kay Scarpetta goes where no medical examiner has gone before — outer space — in Autopsy, the 25th outing for Patricia Cornwell’s popular forensic pathologist-turned-detective.
Well, sort of.
Along with her husband Benton Wesley, a forensic psychologist with the U.S. Secret Service, Scarpetta is recruited by the White House as part of its Doomsday Commission to conduct an investigation into the deaths of two astronauts aboard an orbiting laboratory. Apparently, a third astronaut left the bodies of his crewmates behind and has been implicated in their deaths.
Scarpetta must determine whether the pair were killed by space debris that ripped through the satellite or by the surviving astronaut. To do so, she must remotely navigate a rescue team through a pair of autopsies in space. “I’m used to lies about personal details such as dental work, plastic surgery, health habits, various implants and all sorts of secret vices,” Scarpetta tells us. Then she adds: “The truth comes out if your last visit to the doctor is with a medical examiner.”
Readers may wonder why the corpses are not simply brought back to Earth first. But as with many of the science-driven plots Cornwell crafts for Scarpetta, it’s complicated. Suffice to say there’s a perfectly logical explanation for the space-based posthumous examination. It adds a new dimension and a unique setting to the novel series and is ample enough reason to welcome Scarpetta back to the literary fold after a five-year absence. (Her last appearance came in 2016’s Chaos.)
White House officials contend the surviving astronaut was possibly working with a biomedical engineer named Gwen Hailey to spy on the space program for the Russians. But Hailey’s dead too, her body recently recovered along a set of railroad tracks on Daingerfield Island in Virginia. It’s now lying on Scarpetta’s morgue table, as she has recently assumed the role of Virginia’s chief medical examiner. The M.E.’s office itself is in need of a complete overhaul after years of mismanagement and corruption, adding to Scarpetta’s worries. And, as if that’s not enough, another mysterious death in the same vicinity has the press wondering if a serial killer they’ve dubbed the Railway Slayer is to blame.
“Overwhelmed by misgivings about returning to Virginia, I’m gripped by the fear that I’ve been unrealistic and selfish,” Scarpetta muses about her responsibilities at one point. But not one to let a challenge faze her, she quickly decides, “Nothing will change if all I do is worry about displeasing this one or another … There’s no better cure for discouragement than getting back into the saddle.”
Cornwell unwinds the complicated strands of murder in typical Scarpetta fashion, with excruciatingly precise, step-by-step procedural detail. (It takes about 10 pages just to get checked into the White House for her Situation Room meeting about the astronauts.) But it’s the little details that Cornwell does so well that keep her readers coming back for more.
She even weaves in ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic that’s sweeping the globe, bringing a bit of personal perspective and emotion to the otherworldly events. “People who matter are waiting for me, and they’re glad I’m alive and well, that I’m still around,” Scarpetta muses. “It’s become more of a comfort than I’ve ever imagined, the pandemic giving as much as it’s taken depending on one’s perspective.”
With such flashes of insight and a wealth of nitty-gritty details, Cornwell rockets Scarpetta toward a thrilling conclusion.
G. Robert Frazier is a former Middle Tennessee newspaper reporter and editor now working as a book reviewer and aspiring screenwriter. He has served as a script reader for screenwriting competitions at both the Austin Film Festival and the Nashville Film Festival. He lives in La Vergne.
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