Cause of Death

Readers of Patricia Cornwell’s first six thrillers have grown to know an engaging cast of characters. Of primary importance is Dr. Kay Scarpetta, forensic pathologist and chief medical examiner for the state of Virginia. Colorful supporting roles are taken by Police Detective Pete Marino, as chauvinistic as he is dependable, and Scarpetta’s niece Lucy, as erratic as she is brilliant. Also present in later volumes is Benton Wesley, an FBI profiler and Scarpetta’s erstwhile lover.

In her seventh case, CAUSE OF DEATH, Scarpetta discovers that a diver supposedly searching for Civil War memorabilia was actually an investigative journalist—and an acquaintance of Scarpetta—following a tantalizing lead. Furthermore, his apparent death by drowning in the icy waters of Norfolk’s Inactive Naval Ship Yard turns out to be a carefully disguised case of murder.

When an assistant driving Scarpetta’s own car is murdered as well and radioactive debris is discovered at the scene, Scarpetta becomes convinced that the case she is investigating has wide-ranging implications.

CAUSE OF DEATH is as atmospheric a novel as Cornwell has written. Scarpetta’s New Year’s Eve dive into the Elizabeth River to investigate the scene of Ted Eddings’ death is vividly claustrophobic. Her growing paranoia—as others choose to see it—over malicious vandalism and police harassment is palpably conveyed. Less convincing, however, are the reappearance of Scarpetta’s overly faithful friends and the actual solution to the mystery itself.

Cornwell deserves her loyal readership, but here she may be marking time. Is the rather colorless Benton Wesley due to be retired from the series completely? Is Lucy ready for her own case? Readers will have to wait for the series’ next installment.