September 1999

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Werewolves and Dysfunctional Families

Another Mixed Bag
from Patricia Cornwell

by Daphne Frostchild

Black Notice
Patricia Cornwell
415 pp.
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For those of you who haven't followed the operatic travails of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta, a little summarizing is in order, to insure that you can make sense of her newest installment, Black Notice.

While the series began quite impressively ten books ago with Scarpetta merely solving intriguing crimes in her capacity as the Medical Examiner of Virginia, Cornwell soon drew her detective into a long, multi-book storyline that had three main elements. First, Scarpetta fell in love with an FBI psychological profiler named Benton Wesley, then her niece (Lucy) found her own budding career with the FBI jeopardized by a lesbian affair, and finally, Scarpetta entered a battle with a pathological genius / serial killer and his sidekick that took three books to resolve.

Now, as Black Notice opens, Benton is dead, Lucy is working for the ATF, and Scarpetta is hovering over a dark abyss of despair, as Kierkegaard would say. She's lost her lover and confidante, and she's also lost her nemesis. But evil is easier to replace than love, of course.

Naturally, all three ongoing story elements carry over in various ways in Black Notice. But the central plot line is unrelated--at least initially.

On a pleasant late-autumn day, Scarpetta is called to investigate a body found in the cargo bay of a ship at Richmond's Deep Water Terminal. In signature Cornwell style, the body is at an isolated site, past some railroad tracks behind a Philip Morris manufacturing plant. It's a strong scene that draws on what might be Cornwell's greatest talent as a writer: her ability to scout out intriguing outdoor locations for her crime scenes and describe them in wonderful detail. With a raw understatement that rings of Raymond Chandler (or even Hemingway), she captures the loneliness--the abandonment, even--that comes with a violent, secret death. The isolated, even decrepit crime scene becomes, to use T.S. Eliot's fancy term, the objective correlative for the god- and human-forsaken in-between world lost souls must slip into when their deaths are abrupt, violent and unstopped.


I looked around, taking in the entire scene at once. A light breeze clinked heavy chains against cranes that had been offloading steel beams from the Euroclip, three hatches at a time, when all activity stopped. Forklifts and flatbed trucks had been abandoned. Dockworkers and crew had nothing to do and kept their eyes on us from the tarmac.

Some looked on from the bows of their ships and through the windows of deckhouses. Heat rose from oil-stained asphalt scattered with wooden frames, spacers and skids, and a CSX train clanked and scraped through a crossing beyond the warehouses. The smell of creosote was strong but could not mask the stench of rotting human flesh that drifted like smoke on the air.


The body is in an advanced state of decay, and initially, at least, it is unidentifiable, although it offers a tantalizing clue: the dead man's clothing is covered with strands of thin, wispy, pale hair that nobody can identify. The container in which it was found had been sealed in Antwerp, Belgium, and shipped unnoticed across the Atlantic--with the implication, of course, that the death was distant in both time and place. The body--or the Container Man, as he is soon nicknamed--is sitting upright, with no visible signs of violence. But a message written in French on an adjacent carton tells Scarpetta this isn't merely a stowaway who dehydrated or suffocated before he made it to America. Translated into English, it says, "Have a nice trip, werewolf."

After Scarpetta finds enough evidence during the usual, grimly detailed autopsy to suggest the man didn't die a natural death ("Cause of death undetermined...Manner, homicide"), Interpol is contacted, and the body is officially listed as being the remains of a missing person. ("Black notice" is the color code Interpol assigns to unidentified corpses.)

For a while, nothing happens. Then a convenience store clerk in Richmond is brutally attacked and murdered (in addition to being shot, she is beaten severely and the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet bitten repeatedly), and Scarpetta finds the same strange, pale hair on the clerk as she had found on the Container Man. Whoever killed the Container Man and stuffed him into a cargo container in Antwerp crossed the Atlantic with his victim, it would seem--and now he's killing women in Scarpetta's own town.


At this point, hard-boiled readers of this review might well be tempted to stop reading and run out to buy their own copy of Black Notice. First, though, glance up two paragraphs and notice I said, "For a while, nothing happens." Let me be clearer: from the Container Man's autopsy to the death of the convenience store clerk, Cornwell gives her readers one hundred pages of inter-departmental political strife and a lot of the standard yelling matches Cornwell's main characters can't seem to avoid. She's not especially good at showing us nuances in her characters' emotions, and they consequently tend to swing in extremes from anger to remorse like a drunk driver lurching from one side of the road to the other.

The political squabbling isn't much more engaging. A new deputy chief is throwing her weight around in the Richmond police department, trying to get both Scarpetta and her cop buddy Pete Marino fired. Of course, she happens to be beautiful and dangerously flirtatious, and while she works a sirenlike spell on the men around her, there's a strange sexual tension between Scarpetta and the deputy chief.


Her eyes bored into places even I couldn't see, and she seemed to wind her way through sacred parts of me and sense the meaning of my many walls. She took in my face and my body and I wasn't sure if she was comparing what I had to hers, or if she was assessing something she might decide she wanted.


Unfortunately, despite Cornwell's best efforts to demonize her ("Her eyes were dark holes, her teeth flashing like steel blades in the glow of sodium lights"), the deputy chief doesn't begin to provide the sort of tension and fear a well-drawn villain might. Instead, she's the catalyst for a soap opera subplot.


Of course, on some level, nearly all of Cornwell's more recent books read like soap operas. (Sometimes, as in Hornet's Nest--her first non-Scarpetta mystery--they're virtually nothing but soap opera.) If you read her series avidly, they make perfectly good sense. To outsiders they must often sound like symphonies played by the tone-deaf.

An argument might be made on behalf of at least some of Cornwell's non-investigation themes, though, on the grounds that her novels should be more properly labeled traditional Gothic fantasies, rather than simple modern mysteries. And like all Gothic novels, her work functions within a rather narrow range of conventions and formulas.

Like any good Gothic novelist, for example, Cornwell takes as her main theme the melodramatic battle between absolute good and absolute evil. And to ridicule her for Scarpetta's absurd goodness--she's damn near the überfräulein, really--is to ignore the vital role she (as the hero) plays in the Gothic tradition. The same may be said of her villains--for all the over-the-top howlers they let off, we have to recognize the Gothic tradition to which they give obeisance. After all, absolute evil wouldn't be known for its understatement, would it?

Likewise, Scarpetta's niece Lucy plays a rather conventional but important Gothic role throughout the series: she is the child who is at risk of being subsumed into evil. Thus, her affair with Carrie Grethen, the recurring villain's sidekick, differs surprisingly little from Jonathan Harker's wife giving herself up to Dracula in Bram Stoker's Gothic masterpiece. At heart, the Gothic tradition is about the dangers inherent in the transition from innocence to experience, from childhood to adulthood. And in this sense, Lucy--as tiresome as her tirades may seem to some readers--is central to the Gothic themes that run through the Scarpetta series.


Still not convinced that Cornwell is a stunningly well-paid Gothic novelist? Consider the following passage from Black Notice:


I wandered around, feeling the damp cold of old stone and air blowing off the river as I moved around in the darkness of deep shadows and took interest in every detail, as if I were he. He would have been fascinated by this place. It was the hall of dishonor that displayed his trophies after his kills and reminded him of his sovereign immunity. He could do whatever he wanted, whenever he pleased and leave all the evidence in the world and he wouldn't be touched.


With its rather stiff and formal "as if I were he" phrasing and standard Gothic details--"damp cold," "old stone," "darkness," "deep shadows"--it could have been written by Edgar Allen Poe or Ann Radcliffe or Robert Louis Stevenson--or Victor Hugo, for that matter. And the implication that the narrator is inside the beast's lair--or at least believes she is--is a wonderful nineteenth century Gothic device: it is the Innocent in danger of being consumed by dark Experience. Indeed, Scarpetta's imagining that she herself is seeing the dark world through the monster's eyes underlines the 'doubling' theme that is so important in the Gothic tradition.

That the threat takes the form of unstoppable, violent, deviant sexuality seems almost to...well, to drive the stake through the vampire's heart, if we can switch Gothic monsters for a moment. Despite our best good-hearted efforts, we are all fascinated by the darker side of life. As much as it scares us, it attracts us, although we may not want to admit it. After all, how else could you explain the phenomenal success Cornwell's books have enjoyed?

Cornwell, it would seem, is our Bram Stoker--or even our Victor Hugo, producing big, emotionally charged potboilers. Indeed, From Potter's Field even ended in the sewer tunnels under New York, just as Les Miserables ended in the sewer tunnels under Paris. And the same people who flocked to see Les Miserables a few years ago have now bought enough copies of Black Notice to send it to the top of the bestseller lists with shocking speed. And they're going to enjoy it for many of the same reasons they enjoyed Les Miserables. But it still doesn't completely absolve her of the soap opera complaints, unfortunately.

Put simply, a lot of us love her mystery plots and tolerate the Gothic themes--but we could do without the tirades.


So exactly how much of Black Notice is soap opera and how much of it is a traditional mystery? Without going into word-count comparisons, let's just say the split is roughly three parts mystery, two parts soap opera. And that's better than some of the earlier novels (Hornet's Nest was more like one part mystery to four parts soap opera.) It helps, of course, to have a plot that doesn't tie in directly to the main characters' ongoing soap-opera plot lines. But that the soap opera elements are there at all is disappointing. At heart, Cornwell remains a strong, consistent mystery writer when it comes to the mystery elements of her novels. Unfortunately, she gives us something else to go along with the good stuff.

While Black Notice is one of the better Scarpetta titles of late, Cornwell would do her loyal readers a great favor if she dropped the shouting matches and went back to what attracted us in the first place: writing strong fantasies about the dark world we all knew so well as children, when the lights went out and the house grew quiet and something...over there, in that corner...behind you...creaked...

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