Patricia Cornwell Essay - Critical Essays


Patricia Cornwell’s Dr. Kay Scarpetta and Andy Brazil series feature female detectives in new roles: Scarpetta, a medical examiner, and Virginia West and Judy Hammer, police chiefs. The Scarpetta series also broke new ground with its use of forensic technology, much of which Cornwell later used to investigate the series of murders attributed to Jack the Ripper in her true-crime book. The Scarpetta series is the most scrutinized and has attracted praise and censure for the elements that boosted it to the top of the best-seller lists: its narrative technique and its characters.

As the Scarpetta series grew, critics termed the dominance of forensic detail both gripping and formulaic, and the protagonist both compelling and one-dimensional. In a 1991 Publishers Weekly interview, Cornwell stated that she was no longer as “infatuated” with forensics and “more interested in the psychological and spiritual nuances of Scarpetta’s life.” The early volumes in the series are written in the first person from the point of view of Scarpetta. The relentlessly technical and scrupulously precise descriptions of her forensic work function as organizational and moral forces trying to contain the amoral chaos let loose on society by psychopathic and sociopathic killers. They also underscore the less-than-scrupulous nature of the institutions that support these procedures. At times, the crime being investigated takes a back seat to jockeying for position in the institutions dedicated to solving crimes. Scarpetta is a highly educated professional who must fight to keep her position because she is a woman in a male-dominated profession. In later volumes in the series, Cornwell’s narrative experiments with multiple points of view help draw back the curtain even further on the people and institutions that seek to maintain the norm. This behind-the-scenes look at what is sometimes a less than single-minded search for truth and justice counterbalances what some critics point out as implausibilities in the plot.

The Andy Brazil series, although not as critically well received, offers a counterpoint. Brazil is an earnest, if blundering, rookie volunteer police officer whose athleticism, stamina, and intellect rival a superhero’s. In each volume, solving the killings is second to the routine of the local newspaper, police precinct, government, and underworld. In the debut volume, Hornet’s Nest (1996), Brazil pops open the trunk of the patrol car instead of activating the siren. On traffic duty he halts a hearse; the coffin slides out and Brazil runs after it. Brazil’s enthusiasm influences Chief Judy Hammer and Deputy Chief Virginia West to brush up on their community policing skills, yet he irritates them as he publishes details of the serial killings as well as a profile on West. The trio’s personal and professional tensions reveal their altruism and their colleagues’ selfishness.

Scarpetta is and is not a typical fictional detective. She is...

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