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,...

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The Body Farm

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THE BODY FARM is Patricia Cornwell’s fifth crime novel since her auspicious debut with POSTMORTEM (1983). Dr. Kay Scarpetta, forensic pathologist and lawyer, again is the featured player, and venues and devices of the novel are familiar, but Cornwell challenges the limitations of the police procedural genre in a carefully plotted study of vulnerability.

When eleven-year-old Emily Steiner’s body is found, the modus operandi resembles that of an at- large serial killer. Scarpetta raises questions about this killer’s involvement, however, mainly because of the body’s condition. This leads her to a laboratory known as the Body Farm, where a scientist studies corpses in different stages of decomposition. Information she gleans from this grisly place provides her with leads.

Scarpetta is distracted, however, by her niece Lucy’s problems. A loner whom Kay shelters, Lucy becomes involved in a lesbian relationship, is dismissed from her FBI internship, and is injured in an accident intended to kill her aunt. This sub-plot, seemingly peripheral, is useful, since it increases the complexity of the case and adds a personal dimension to the character of Scarpetta, a woman in a male-dominated profession. As such, she has an edge on colleagues when it comes to understanding the murderer’s motivations.

Because of her scientific expertise, Scarpetta approaches a case largely by studying evidence, and this novel, like its predecessors, shows the pathologist in the laboratory and at the coroner’s table. She also does legwork, questioning witnesses and suspects, visiting sites, and taking risks. Although many people help her, she assembles the complete picture pretty much alone. Indeed, as a physician, she is uniquely qualified to recognize the syndrome from which the murderer suffers. Scarpetta expresses the theme of THE BODY FARM in this comment: “It seems this is all about people loving people who don’t love them back. It’s about hurt being passed on.” The sensitivity she reveals here may be why readers find her so appealing.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XC, July, 1994, p. 1813.

Chicago Tribune. October 2, 1994, XIV, p. 9.

Kirkus Reviews. LXII, July 1, 1994, p. 886.

Library Journal. CXIX, September 1, 1994, p. 213.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 11, 1994, p. 18.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, October 16, 1994, p. 38.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, July 18, 1994, p. 237.

Time. CXLIV, October 3, 1994, p. 84.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 21, 1994, p. 20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, September 11, 1994, p. 8.

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The principal technique of the novel is the spare yet resonant voice Cornwell has evolved for her character, as passages quoted and discussed...

(The entire section is 341 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Several contexts beyond the detective genre can be fruitful starting points for discussion of The Body Farm: literature and science,...

(The entire section is 351 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Patricia Cornwell's fifth novel sends Scarpetta, Marino, and Wesley to a new setting, rural North Carolina near Asheville, a locale close to...

(The entire section is 536 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

This novel places the hard-boiled ethos, an outlook bred in cities, into a rural area. Of the Scarpetta novels, this one bears the closest...

(The entire section is 181 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The third Scarpetta novel All That Remains (1992) offers Cornwell's fullest treatment of the investigation of serial murder. The...

(The entire section is 1014 words.)