You have to give Patricia Cornwell some credit. It takes guts for the author of several best-selling crime novels (Cause of Death, Cruel and Unusual, From Potter’s Field) to strike out suddenly in a brand-new direction and jettison the character who made her famous — risking not only her credibility but the wrath of disappointed readers. Hornet’s Nest is a big gamble, all right; unfortunately, it’s an even bigger mess. Not only is Cornwell’s series hero, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, nowhere to be found here, neither is any semblance of reality.
Even though the setting is Charlotte, N.C., this is very definitely the land of make-believe, and the story would make even Horatio Alger wince. Twenty-two-year-old Andy Brazil, who’s been ”updating TV shows and movie blurbs” for The Charlotte Observer’s weekly television magazine, is rewarded for his industriousness by being promoted…to police reporter. His first day on the new job, Brazil discovers that he’ll be riding in a patrol car with none other than Deputy Chief Virginia West, a tough-talking 42-year-old ”woman who still turned heads and had never been married to anything beyond what she thought she was here on earth to do.” Naturally, West bristles at being partnered with the eager-beaver reporter (who wouldn’t?), though her boss, Chief Judy Hammer, figures it’s a good public relations ploy.
Despite the hokey setup, you might be willing to go along with Cornwell if she did anything interesting or inventive with the material. She doesn’t. The novel unfolds in a series of hectic vignettes that run the gamut from traffic direction to the slapstick shenanigans of a vengeance-seeking redneck truck driver to the search for yet another serial killer.
As the book gallops recklessly on and on, you finally become impatient, wondering how such folly could have been published. In the past, Cornwell showed herself to be a captivating natural storyteller, and while her prose has never been especially stylish, it’s always done the job. Hornet’s Nest doesn’t feel written so much as dictated on the run. When, for example, Deputy Chief West spots a middle-aged computer systems analyst across the room, she immediately identifies her as ”a cowardly little worm…exactly fitting the profile of people who set fires, sent bombs by mail, tampered with products like painkillers and eyedrops, and harassed others with hate notes and anonymous ugly calls over the telephone.”
Here’s a novel where all the good guys are good-looking, and all the bad guys (or weaklings) are decidedly not; where the only major gay character is portrayed as a sexual predator, with much buffoonish mincing; where an obnoxious banker and political manipulator is described — with absurd insensitivity — as being ”Jewish”; where the police action is often interrupted to explore the fantasy life of an Abyssinian house cat; and where the author, with unbounded hubris, even feels comfortable speaking for God: ”…the Almighty had a rather big plan for this special recruit….It was going to prove rather astonishing, if the Almighty didn’t say so Its-Almighty-Self.”
Somebody page Dr. Scarpetta—quick!