Make that big Y cut on the corpse’s chest. Hoist its lifeless organs onto the scale.
Detailed post-mortems have been showing up pretty regularly in crime lit these days. And if an author can put a female in charge of the wielding the instruments that dig up the grisly, often smelly bits in order to help find the bad guy, the book may well reach the heights.
For better or for worse it seems, the days of detecting over a genteel cuppa with the likes of Agatha Christie’s magnificent Jane Marple are definitely in the past. We won’t even talk about Nancy Drew.
Which brings us to more current Mystery Queens, Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs – each has a new book out this year. But then - what else is new?
Both women are ultra-prolific, capably churning out winners since the ’90s. They each write a series featuring a professional female examining bodies and microscopic evidence. And – trust me on this – neither Dr. Kay Scarpetta (Cornwell) or Dr. Temperance Brennan (Reichs) have ever seen an autopsy they didn’t like.
Strong-fingered, strong-stomached, sharp-brained – nothing ever bothers them,
Both series cover the same grisly turf and deal with a remarkably similar group of personalities. Loutish cop assistants are a very big deal. And feckless younger sisters turn up too. Both protagonists seem to deal with a bewildering number of government agencies, operating under even more bewildering acronyms. But neither author seems to feel embarrassed about this. Or even go so far as to admit to any rivalry.
But never mind. And so what, anyway? Seems to be plenty of room (and bucks) in this field for the two of them. (I should mention that both the books reviewed below are better if read in series and might be even more enjoyable that way. But each can certainly stand on its own.)
Flesh and Blood: A Scarpetta Novel
By Patricia Cornwell
This is the 22nd Scarpetta novel, and the humorless Dr. Kay is now based in Cambridge as the chief medical examiner to the State of Massachusetts with connections to the Pentagon and many military institutions that, frankly I have never been able to quite figure out. But I digress.
On a beautiful June morning when President Obama is expected to visit Cambridge, she discovers seven brightly shined pennies, neatly arranged heads up on her brick garden wall. They are all dated 1981, the year of her niece Lucy’s birth. Previously, Scarpetta recalls, she had received a mysterious Mother’s Day Tweet from someone who calls himself Copperhead. What can this mean?
Suddenly she hears of the murder of a high school music teacher in her neighborhood, He was shot at long range with a bullet wrapped in brightly polished copper. The victim had been in the news when he was falsely accused of being a terrorist and invited to the White House as a kind of apology. There, he happened to run into Scarpetta (don’t ask) and insulted her, claiming she was selling body parts. The president, standing by (again, please don’t ask) was amused.
Murders begin to mount, all involving “frags” of copper. Yet none of the victims seem to be connected. We travel to New Jersey, to Marblehead, Scarpetta’s irritating genius niece comes under suspicion. Scarpetta dives down to a shipwreck off Fort Lauderdale. And all is revealed.
It’s interesting to note that as the books go on, our heroine is becoming more human. We hear of her childhood helping her fatally ill father in the family grocery store, of her love for her FBI analyst husband. Not to mention, how her medical training comes in handy in that regard.
Here’s a love scene: “I trace the second cervical vertebra down to C7, gently, slowly digging my fingertips into the Longus colli muscle feeling him relax, sensing his mood turning languid as he floats in a sensation of physical pleasure.” The new Kay Scarpetta!
Not only that, she’s also a gourmet cook.
Bones Never Lie
By Kathy Reichs
336 pages, $27
This is the 16th Temperance Brennan, but Kathy Reichs is not just a novelist, she’s an industry. A forensic anthropologist in real life, she teaches at the University of North Carolina, serves on the National Police Services Advisory Council in Canada and testifies on high-profile cases in court. Her life forms the basis for her novels as well as the show “Bones” on Fox TV. Not only that, two of her children are writers too.
Feeling slightly inadequate? Who wouldn’t but then Reichs’ protagonist, Temperance Brennan, is no slouch either. In the books, forensic anthropologist Brennan works in both Charlotte and Montreal.
Now she has become involved with two child murders, one in Vermont and one in Charlotte, both disturbingly similar to a series of earlier murders in Canada where Brennan apprehended psychopath Anique Pomerleau, killer and murderer of several young girls.
The big question now obviously: has the psychopath moved her operations a thousand miles away?
Not a tough guess, no. But there’s plenty of suspense anyhow. And some well-written psychological background. And even a bit of a surprise.
Admittedly, both books require a considerable suspension of disbelief but keep your eye on the forecast – there’s plenty of snow on the way. Plenty of cold also.
You could do a whole lot worse on a long winter night.
Janice Okun is the News’ former Food Editor and Restaurant Critic as well as as a devoted lifelong reader of crime fiction.