Dr. Kay Scarpetta, chief medical examiner of Virginia, has been a chilly little star of the mystery thriller genre since her debut a decade ago. Disciplined, brilliant, and humorless, the doctor- lawyer heroine of Patricia Cornwell’s series returns in her 11th book, The Last Precinct, and she’s uncharacteristically, and refreshingly, out of control.
It’s as if the series itself were having a midlife crisis, eager to mix things up – by royally rattling its fortysomething stoic. Where Cornwell’s past novels have relied on twisty serial killers or startling character deaths for their thrills, ”Precinct” picks up rather dreamily where last year’s ”Black Notice” left off. Scarpetta has just been attacked in her home by (and it’s a tribute to Cornwell’s starkly sincere writing that this isn’t as howlingly silly as it sounds) Jean-Baptiste Chandonne, or The Werewolf, as he calls himself, in reference to a rare medical disorder that covers him in fur. Chandonne has viciously battered and bitten to death a slew of women – one of whom was Scarpetta’s nemesis, scheming policewoman Diane Bray.
Cue action? Not really. More like cue reaction, specifically the deeply private Scarpetta’s reaction to being ”processed” for trial. Lab technicians tromp through her home (it’s now a crime scene), prosecutors mock her secrets (she trysted with a younger cop who’s on the case), and attorneys question her stability as a witness (she’s still reeling from the murder of her FBI boyfriend). The good doctor isn’t game: ”I may as well be a naked body on one of my own steel tables in the morgue.” Then, upping the insult, Scarpetta suddenly finds herself under grand jury investigation for Bray’s murder. That’s when things really go to hell.
Cornwell has always excelled at describing the dirty details of medicine and detective work – she can write engagingly for pages on techniques for reading blood splatter – and the story whirls along with occasionally unlikely subplots involving the drug trade, torturous murders, and the Wolfman and his pack. But these bloody intrigues are less interesting than the unraveling of Scarpetta. Pushing 50, she swills Scotch and lusts for cigarettes, lashes out, then sulkily retreats. She slips into her past and pokes at her own wounds. She is, finally, losing her cool – and it’s a truly enjoyable jolt.