OK "Non-procedural" Mar 12, 2009
An interesting book with some compelling figures, but it fits somewhat strangely into the genre.
The main character is Kate Scarpetta, the Chief Medical Examiner for the state of Virginia (think "Quincy"). A driven, brilliant MD/JD, she coordinates with the crude, slovenly, but surprisingly smart local homicide detective and the slick, icy FBI agent who always seems to get involved in her cases, to untangle complicated webs of intrigue while juggling a duplicitous ex-lover, a conniving investigative reporter, her 10-year-old computer-whiz niece, her devoted and motherly office assistant . . . you get the picture.
The characters are somewhat clicheic, but still interesting. The cases are complicated enough to be engaging. But still, I was left with a disjointed feeling after reading several volumes in the series.
First of all, though Scarpetta is a forensic pathologist, she spends almost no time in the lab, and the cases hinge only minimally on the technicalities of forensic science. So if you're wanting a modern techno-procedural, these don't seem to be the books for you. Second, she spends large amounts of time driving around interviewing witnesses, retrieving documents, cajoling reluctant hermits to part with their secrets, and, inevitably, getting into gunfights. Needless to say, this is nothing like what medical examiners actually do - but that raises the question why Scarpetta needs to be an ME, since her actual job seems to have so little to do with the plots of the stories. (She could more convincingly be just a regular detective, with the forensic stuff - as little as it is - provided by a supporting character as necessary.) The technical details of the books, involving both medical science and computers, are often self-consciously displayed but slightly incorrect, which jars. And, finally, the complicated plots are often resolved in a somewhat perfunctory manner, which again jars after so much effort is spent assembling the clues.
The strength of this series is in its characterizations, not its plotting nor, surprisingly, the technical details it appears to emphasize. Readers can decide for themselves whether the cast - each of whom can be annoying in their own way - is enticing enough to follow for long. A strong female protagonist given to commenting on the politics of women in the professions and police work provides an interesting point of view; the books are otherwise straightforward potboilers.
"Postmortem" - the first volume in the series - focuses on a serial killer who preys on single women but leaves almost no clues. (It is loosely based on Virginia's real-life "South Side Strangler" case.) It effectively introduces the recurring characters in the series, but then sacrifices the detection angle for a dramatic plot when the killer begins stalking the ME herself. In the end, it's a good book of its type, but not much different from many others.