Book of the Dead, by Patricia Cornwell

A young tennis star is murdered by someone by being forced to sit in an ice cold bath and drink vodka, and then has her eyes put out before they're filled with sand and glued together. The circumstances of the death make for confusing autopsy conditions, and Scarpetta has an argument with the local police about what happened.

That's how the book starts, but although I think it would be fair to say that the book is ostensibly the story of how they identify and find the killer, it's not really very much focused on that, so I can't easily summarise the whole book.

I think I've read a Scarpetta novel by Cornwell before and my recollection was that it wasn't great. So I thought I'd give this a go, but didn't have very high expectations. As it turned out, whatever expectations I did have were undershot by a huge margin. This book was dreadful.

While the opening of the book is reasonably conventional (maniac killing someone and talking rubbish to her about what he thinks he's doing while he does it), the subsequent story flashed around between different characters and settings, and forward and backward in time, so that I really had trouble working out what on earth was going on.

Initially, it felt like being forced to watch a single episode of a long-running soap-opera which you'd never heard of: there were references to characters or past situations which felt like the sort of thing that someone familiar with previous episodes would recognise, and so I assumed that perhaps the books in the Scarpetta series are fairly tightly linked.

But then some things happened which seemed to be inconsistent with that - e.g. characters which I assumed had had a long-running part in the story turned out to behave in ways that didn't fit (e.g. Marilyn Self, who talks about having had past run-ins with Scarpetta, ends up being the mother of the murderer, which feels a bit unlikely for a recurring character).

I wrote down a list of people who all seemed to have fairly significant parts, and who I assumed I'd have to keep track of. Note that more time is spent on some of these people than on Scarpetta, but most of them are not actually that relevant to this particular plot

The thing was, when I was reading, all of the above were people I thought I had to pay attention to. And there were loads of other people too. I have no idea which of the above are just in this book, and which I'm meant to know about from other books.

Quite apart from the random scene/time shifting and lack of coherent narrative, the writing itself was poor. I've probably been spoiled by John Sandford, but one of the things I've noticed with his writing is that he'll take you into a scene by describing small details which make you think "oh yes, I suppose that is what it would look/sound like."

One scene in this book had Scarpetta, Lucy and Benton taking a helicopter flight to search for bodies using an infra-red camera, and landing on a beach after they'd detected some. Leave aside for the moment the plausibility of a psychiatrist, a computer programmer, and a pathologist taking it on themselves to fly around looking for serial killer victims, one thing that struck me was her description of the beach after they landed and got out of the helicopter: the only sound they could hear was the surf. Really? No helicopter engine running down, or ticking in the heat?

Up until the last bit of the book I was thinking "I defy anyone to read this and be able to explain what's going on", but then at the end there was a long explanation from the baddies, telling exactly what had happened.

This was a truly dire effort, I think Cornwell should be ashamed of herself. No way will I read any more.

Completed : 16-Jun-2012 (audiobook, read by Lorelei King)

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