The Body Farm

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Body Farm is Patricia Cornwell’s fifth crime novel since her auspicious 1990 debut with Postmortem, which won the top genre awards in three countries. Dr. Kay Scarpetta, forensic pathologist and lawyer, returns as the featured player in this book, and some venues and devices also are familiar, but Cornwell is not a formula writer and once again challenges the limitations of the genre. Though the book’s setting links it to the police procedural and its rough-and-tumble realism echoes hard-boiled crime fiction, it transcends both types. At its core, The Body Farm is a carefully plotted study of vulnerability as exemplified by victims, perpetrators, and law enforcement officials, including the central character. By focusing on how Scarpetta’s dual roles of woman and aunt impinge upon and conflict with her professional responsibilities, Cornwell eschews stereotyping and presents a multidimensional detective.

The novel begins at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Academy in Quantico, Virginia, where Scarpetta and others of the FBI’s Investigative Support Unit are consulting about the murder of eleven-year-old Emily Steiner, who, according to her mother, was abducted at night from their rural North Carolina home. Five days later, the girl’s nude body, with pieces of its flesh cut out, was found at a nearby lake; she had been gagged, bound, sexually assaulted, and killed with a single shot in the head. The modus operandi resembles that of Temple Brooks Gault, one of the FBI’s ten most wanted, presumed to have carried out serial killings in Richmond two years earlier. Scarpetta remains obsessed with her failure to have apprehended Gault, who had once been within her reach. She is unable “to shake the chill of doubt . . . and had not stopped wondering what more [she] could have done.”

Though everyone considers Gault the prime suspect, Scarpetta raises questions that suggest uncertainty, mainly because of the condition of Emily’s body and Denesa Steiner’s apparently atypical behavior the night of the alleged abduction. The former leads Scarpetta to the University of Tennessee’s Decay Research Facility, dubbed the Body Farm, where forensic scientist Thomas Kats studies corpses in different stages of decomposition. Information she gleans from this grisly place provides her with vital leads.

Scarpetta is distracted from the case, however, by her niece Lucy’s presence at the FBI Academy. The daughter of Scarpetta’s irresponsible sister, Lucy is an intern in the academy’s classified research facility, with the prospect of a regular position after college. A loner whom Scarpetta shelters and nurtures, Lucy becomes involved in a lesbian relationship with an older woman in her unit, later is charged with espionage and dismissed, and then is seriously injured in a staged automobile accident that was intended to kill her aunt. Though the Steiner and Lucy story lines parallel each other, and there indeed is an intersecting link, the Lucy plot seems largely peripheral and sometimes even distracting. Yet it is useful and relevant, for it increases the complexity of the case with what prove to be mainly false leads and adds a personal, feminine dimension to the character of Scarpetta, a woman in a male-dominated profession. In addition to being Lucy’s surrogate mother, Scarpetta becomes involved in an affair, which becomes as frustrating as her relationship with Lucy. These elements make Scarpetta a clear counterpoint to the other major female character, Denesa Steiner, a mother and lover. The connection is significant because it gives Scarpetta an edge on her colleagues when it comes to understanding Steiner’s motivations and the pathology of her actions.

The progress of The Body Farm follows a typical crime-fiction format: After a murder, the authorities quickly settle upon a prime suspect, but events soon overtake the satisfaction that comes with their certainty. In a surprising twist, one of the detectives—Max Ferguson of the State Bureau of Investigation in North Carolina—is found dead in his bedroom, wearing women’s undergarments and apparently a victim of accidental hanging while engaged in autoeroticism. Further, frozen pieces of Emily’s flesh are found in his refrigerator. Ferguson inevitably becomes a new prime suspect, although Scarpetta suggests a possible setup, a prescient notion to which she returns when learning that Denesa Steiner was one of the last people to have seen him alive. Other suspects briefly surface, including Wren Maxwell, a school friend on whom Emily had a crush, and Creed Lindsey, a black janitor at her school, but they chiefly serve to provide details that enable Scarpetta to place matters into perspective and reconstruct the crime. Typically in crime fiction, the more information gathered,...

(The entire section is 1973 words.)