Patricia Cornwell

Dr. Kay Scarpetta - Chief Medical Examiner - Richmond, Virginia


(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky DEC 27, 2008)

In the opening chapter of Patricia Cornwell's Scarpetta, forensic psychologist Benton Wesley calls his wife, medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, to inform her that prosecutor Jaime Berger needs her in New York City as soon as possible. It seems that a thirty-four year old patient named Oscar Bane voluntarily checked himself into Bellevue's prison ward after he found the dead body of his girlfriend, Terri Bridges, in her apartment, the apparent victim of a sexual sadist. Bane is a "little person" who is only a bit over four feet tall; he suffers from a genetic condition in which "his torso and head were disproportionately large for his extremities." He shows signs of paranoia, and is convinced that the person who tortured and killed Terri will come after him, as well. For some reason, Bane trusts Kay and wants to speak only to her. Although the authorities suspect Oscar of being Terri's killer, they have no probable cause to arrest him. They hope that he will be forthcoming with Scarpetta and perhaps shed additional light on what happened to Terri.

Kay is a busy professional whose personal life is far from perfect. Her marriage to Benton is shaky, partly because of an unfortunate incident in which detective Pete Marino, who had been Kay's close friend and colleague for years, attacked her in a drunken rage. Subsequently, Marino stopped drinking and went into therapy, and Kay was able to forgive him. Benton, on the other hand, has had trouble letting go of the past. To make matters worse, a vicious gossip columnist has posted a story about the assault on a website called "Gotham Gotcha," thus exposing Kay's history to everyone with a computer. Lucy Farinelli, Kay's brilliant and accomplished niece, is caught in the middle. Marino used to be her close pal when she was growing up. Now Lucy, who is a computer genius, an expert pilot, and a successful businesswoman, is furious with Marino for what he did to her aunt. Like it or not, Benton, Kay, Marino, and Lucy end up collaborating in an effort to identify and apprehend a particularly nasty and clever villain.

Scarpetta is a dark tale about the neuroses and psychoses that warp and sometimes destroy people's lives. It is filled with dysfunctional characters: The homicide victim, Terri Bridges, had severe emotional problems, mostly stemming from a severe case of obsessive compulsive disorder; the aforementioned Bane, who appears jittery, depressed, and severely frightened, may either be a demented murderer or a victim of circumstances beyond his control; the still unhappy and solitary Marino works for Jamie Berger and dreads coming into contact with Kay again after what he did to her; a woman, whose online username is Shrew, is the system administrator for "Gotham Gotcha." Although she needs the money that the job provides, Shrew feels exploited by her boss (whose name even she doesn't know) and is secretly ashamed of the underhanded and sordid nature of her work.

Cornwell attempts to juggle quite a few balls in this five-hundred page novel and, for the most part, she keeps them in the air with amazing dexterity. The author moves seamlessly from her characters' personal lives to the complicated murder mystery and back; the writing is crisp and energetic enough to hold our interest. We wonder who the mastermind is behind Terri Bridges' death and other related crimes. Unfortunately, when the reader learns the answer to that question, the narrative goes sharply downhill, since Cornwell resorts to melodramatic and far-fetched plot devices to propel the book's final scenes. Scarpetta is not great literature nor is it particularly realistic. However, it is filled with fascinating forensic details, and it is engrossing, fast-moving, and suspenseful enough to satisfy Cornwell's legion of loyal fans.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 823 reviews
(back to top)


(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky JUL 15, 2005)

Kay Scarpetta and Pete Marino are back in Trace, the new novel by Patricia Cornwell. Scarpetta and Marino live and work in Florida, but Kay is summoned back to Virginia to consult on the puzzling case of a fourteen-year-old girl, Gilly Paulsson, who died suddenly under mysterious circumstances. Much to Kay's distress, the Chief Medical Examiner who replaced her, Dr. Joel Marcus, turns out to be an incompetent and manipulative liar, who does not value her expertise at all. In fact, he would be happy to see Kay fail.

Kay has a great deal on her mind. Her lover, Benton, has gone to Aspen without her, and she has a strained relationship with her niece, Lucy. The last thing she needs is to be caught in a political battle of wills on her old stomping ground. However, once Kay and Marino start digging into the Gilly Paulson case, they find some very disturbing evidence that points to murder. Kay puts political considerations aside as she struggles to make sense of this young girl's death.

Trace is not an easy novel to read. Cornwell is at her creepiest here. The villain, whose identity we know from the get-go, is psychotic, highly delusional, and relentless in his desire to hurt those whom he feels have wronged him in some way. Cornwell relishes the morbid details of forensic pathology, and she spells them out in excruciating detail. In addition, she includes a weird psychosexual subplot featuring Marino that is positively bizarre.

On the plus side, I love Kay Scarpetta's strength of character, integrity, brains, and heart. She is a brilliant forensic pathologist with great instincts and the resolve to do whatever she must to uncover the truth. She recognizes her faults and tries to correct them. Marino, as usual, is profane, politically incorrect, and self-destructive, although his cop's instincts have not diminished with the passing years. He still worships Kay and Lucy, and he will protect them with his life, if necessary.

Trace is exciting and engrossing, but it is also challenging, since the plot is non-linear. The clues are spread throughout the book. There is no "aha" moment when everything falls into place. Cornwell does not provide clear explanations or resolutions for every plot point, and some threads are left dangling. Still, Trace is a daring thriller in the mold of Cornwell's best and earliest works in which she fearlessly explored the darkest and most disturbing recesses of the human mind.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 448 reviews
(back to top)

"Unnatural Exposure"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark JULY 19, 1998)

This series features Dr. Kay Scarpetta who is a forensic scientist (like Scully on the TV series X-Files). These books are popular because Cornwell does a very good job of analyzing the technical evidence. I found Unnatural Exposure to be the best of the series so far.  My niece, Kelly, and I were discussing her books and decided that one reason that this book is better than the earliest ones is that Scarpetta's own niece is older and more interesting.  In Postmortem, Lucy is 10 years old and a brat.  Later she ends up working for the FBI. 

If you haven't already started reading her books, you should read them in the order in which she wrote them since her characters grow with each novel. Though I haven't read beyond Unnatural Exposure, many people claim that the latest two novels are harder to get into because they dwell too much on Kay Scarpetta's emotions and thus are more drawn out than the earlier ones. However, my niece still says they are worth the read and remains an avid fan.

  • Amazon reader rating: from 291 reviews



"Hornet's Nest"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark NOV 10, 1998)

Thumbs down on this one... This book is like an exercise in describing the law enforcement, press, and political arenas of the city if they were run by women and well meaning men. Too much time spent on character development and not enough on the details of a crime that makes the Scarpetta novels so good. 

  • Amazon reader rating: from 385 reviews

(back to top)

Bibliography: (with links to

Featuring Dr. Kay Scarpetta:


Win Garano series:

Andy Brazil Series:



(back to top)

Book Marks:


(back to top)

About the Author:

Patricia Daniels Cornwell was born in 1956 in Miami, Florida. Her father was an appellateattorney and her mother a secretary. Her parents divorced and when she was seven her mother moved her and her two brothers to Patricia CornwellMontreat, North Carolina. Ruth and Bill Graham lived nearby and it was Ruth who told her to write. She went to Kings College in Tennessee and then transferred to Davidson College in North Carolina. After graduating, she married her former English Professor, Charles Cornwell, who is seventeen years older than her. In 1979, just out of college, she started her first job as a reporter for the Charlotte Observer, soon becoming an award winning police reporter. In 1984 she took a job in the Virginia medical examiner's office and worked at the morgue for six years, first as a technical writer then as a computer analyst. She also volunteered as a city cop. In 1988 her husband received an offer to become a pastor at a church in Texas. She refused to go and thus they agreed to an amicable divorce in 1990. (He is now her editor.)

In 1983 she wrote her first book, a biography of Ruth Bell Graham. Between 1984 and 1986 she wrote three novels based on her crime experience - but all were rejected. Sara Ann Freed at Mysterious Press recommended that she expand Scarpetta, rather than using the male detective, as the central character. Thus in 1990, her first novel, Postmortem.  Her preparation paid off.  Postmortem was the first novel ever to win the Edgar Casey, Creasey, Anthony and Macavity awards as well as the French Prix du Roman D'Aventurie, in a single year. 

Cornwell now lives in New York and Richmond, Virginia. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014