Blow Fly

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In Blow Fly, Kay Scarpetta is drawn out of private practice in Florida when she is contacted by Jean-Baptiste Chandonne—the grotesque serial killer and Scarpetta nemesis nicknamed “the Wolfman.” While Chandonne is luring Scarpetta to the prison where he is due to be executed, young female cop and Scarpetta admirer Nic Robillard is investigating a series of serial killings that eventually lead back to the Chandonne family. Scarpetta and her friends and foes are eventually drawn to Louisiana, to be joined there by someone whom she had believed was out of her life forever.

The tone throughout Blow Fly is very dark, continuing a trend in Patricia Cornwell’s novels. The transition that Scarpetta has made in her professional life—from powerful Virginia State Medical Examiner living in a mansion to private consultant in a bland, downscale Florida town—is mirrored by the generally worsening prospects faced by the other main characters. Her niece Lucy is grimly obsessed, and dramatically violates her own moral code early in the novel. Detective Marino, always an unkempt physical wreck, falls even farther here, as does Benton Wesley, made miserable by his enforced separation from Scarpetta. And all that is to say nothing of the villains—a deformed murderer on a squalid death row, and a repulsive couple torturing hapless victims in a decaying shack surrounded by mosquito-infested swamp. Even Scarpetta’s admiring protege, Nic Robillard, is oppressed and frustrated throughout.

Cornwell’s strengths continue to be her deft treatment of the details of forensic investigation, while this book’s weakness is the unremitting melancholy that drains even the successfully concluded sub-plots of the catharsis that readers might expect. The title image sums up this dichotomy: blow flies function as forensic tools to reveal time and manner of death, but they also suggest the pervasive grimness of decay that marks this novel. Additionally, several of the most significant acts at the end of the book take place off stage, producing an oddly anti- climactic ending to a work with multiple parallel plotlines that seem bound to produce more fireworks than they finally do.

Review Sources

Booklist 100, no. 3 (October 1, 2003): 275.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 19 (October 1, 2003): 1201.

Library Journal 128, no. 19 (November 15, 2003): 96.

The New York Times Book Review, November 2, 2003, p. 27.

People 60, no. 17 (October 27, 2003): 50.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 40 (October 6, 2003): 61.

Blow Fly

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Patricia Cornwell’s first Kay Scarpetta novel, Postmortem (1990), earned a sweep of major awards, and Cornwell provided her enormous readership with a new Scarpetta novel every year for the next ten years. In the eleventh book in the series, The Last Precinct (2000), Scarpetta grieves over the violent death of her lover, Wesley Benton, an FBI criminal profiler she had known for many years. Nothing seems to be going right in Scarpetta’s life. Professional and personal attacks against her escalate. Scarpetta spirals into depression and considers leaving her job. With the appearance of Blow Fly after a three-year hiatus in the series, Scarpetta is back, but almost nothing is the same except for the growing litany of gruesome deaths and dangers.

In Blow Fly, Dr. Kay Scarpetta is no longer the chief medical examiner of Virginia. She resigned shortly before the governor was about to fire her for his own political purposes. Scarpetta is living in a small, unpleasant rental house in Delray Beach, Florida, the state where she was born. She has only the limited comfort of her loyal former secretary and a bulldog named Billy. She has virtually no connections with any family members or her former friends and colleagues.

As the novel opens, Scarpetta is conducting a short course on forensics for a group of low-level law enforcement personnel. Most of them would prefer to be in the bar drinking rather than bothering to listen. One of the attendees has anonymously bestowed on Scarpetta a small glass vial containing a dead maggot. Had the larva lived, it would have metamorphosed into a blow fly, the vermin which so quickly infest dead bodies. Scarpetta can tell by the look on the joker’s face who is responsible: Robillard, a shy but determined police investigator from small-town Louisiana. Robillard is starstruck by the presence of the great forensic pathologist. Scarpetta talks with her and is persuaded to help with an old murder case Robillard is fretting over, which then leads to Scarpetta’s involvement in a current serial killer case in the Louisiana bayou area.

The reader soon learns that the sadistic killer of ten women in the past fourteen months is Jay Talley. He is a son of the leader of an international criminal cartel based in France, part of the same vicious Chandonne family appearing in the previous novel in the series, The Last Precinct. A warped woman named Bev Kiffin, dubbed “Swamp Woman” by bayou residents, lives with Talley despite, or perhaps because of, his constant mistreatment of her. Kiffin manages to do some killing herself in the process of procuring victims for Talley. She repeatedly kidnaps women for him, women he then ties up and literally keeps on ice in the bottom of his swamp boat while he tortures and murders them. Talley’s only requirement for his victims is that they should look and be as much like Kay Scarpetta as possible.

Talley’s despised twin brother is the deformed and hairy “Wolfman” Jean-Baptiste Chandonne, the killer who had attacked Scarpetta in the previous novel and whom she had seen sent to death row in the prison in Huntsville, Texas. Jean-Baptiste, even more than his brother, is totally fixated on Scarpetta. He endlessly schemes from his death-row cell to see her again and to see her dead. He sends her a letter saying he will reveal everything concerning the murders and the cartel on the condition that she comes alone to see him in prison and that she agrees to be the physician to administer the fatal injection at his execution.

Scarpetta unwisely goes to Huntsville to see him. She soon departs, enraged and degraded by Wolfman’s repulsive advances and without the information he had promised. Not long afterward, Jean-Baptiste makes a totally unbelievable escape from prison. Cornwell seems unwilling to give up this scary monster character. Evil remains at loose in the world.

The serial killer case is eventually solved but only after further endangerment and death. Scarpetta is involved but is by no means the main star “detective.” Instead, it...

(The entire section is 1679 words.)