Review: “Postmortem” by Patricia Cornwell

postmortemThis review is my first review for the Guardian 1000 Books You Must Read challenge. It counts as the book I had never heard of and as the book from the Crime section. If I want to finish the challenge, I’d better hurry up!

Postmortem, a mystery by Patricia Cornwell, is a dated but still exciting mystery story set in Richmond Virginia. The story is told primarily from the point of view of Dr. Kay Scarpetta, chief medical examiner of the state of Virginia, as she attempts to assist in solving the case of a serial murderer. Other characters include her precocious niece, a grizzled police officer and several politicians doing their normal political maneuverings.

The first thing that struck me about the novel was its inherent feminism. Though it is not incredibly blatant, many of the main characters are strong-willed and competent women. There are Dr. Scarpetta herself, her niece who is a computer whiz, her sister who writes successful children’s novels, the database tech where she works, an intrepid reporter and the first murdered character who is also a doctor. While I don’t think it would be notable today to have women in all these strong roles, they seemed somewhat anachronistic to me because the novel is set in the late 80’s or early 90’s (as far as I could tell).

Additionally, many of the men in the story (including both initially sympathetic characters and fundamentally evil ones such as the murderer) treat women very badly; as either objects of desire to be manipulated and discarded or lesser beings to be ignored and dismissed. This plays into the stereotype of all men as fundamentally rooted in the patriarchy, another aspect of some branches of feminism.

Another thing that felt anachronistic to me was all the smoking in the book; The main character and most of the people she interacts with smoke and do so in their offices and even in the morgue where she works. This brought me out of the story, although it is of course perfectly expected in the time period in which the book is set (especially in Virginia). It also repelled me from some scenes; it not only brought me out of the story but also made me want to leave the room that the characters were in; even to imagine watching the scene in the smoke-filled room was repellent. This is interesting to me because I don’t have any problem watching movies where people are smoking.

The role that the medical examiner plays in the political system and the fact that Dr. Scarpetta’s office appeared to do multiple autopsies a day reminded me of the recent flap among Libertarian circles about Dr. Stephen Hayne, who performed thousands of autopsies a year in Mississippi and Louisiana and served as an expert witness for the prosecution who was willing to back up whatever claims they wanted him to, which resulted in many false convictions. The book helped accentuate the political power and the responsibility that a medical examiner faces; their mistakes or a lack of ethics can cause great tragedy (such as false imprisonment or even execution of the falsely accused).

Overall, ignoring those anachronisms, it was a well-structured and paced mystery story. While I am somewhat unfamiliar with the genre, certainly seems like it could stand as an archetype. This may be why the Guardian selected it for their list of 1000 Books You Must Read. I am reminded of a post I recently read about the fact that the business model for mystery books could be changed in a technologically advanced world: the first 90% of the book could be free, with a charge necessary only to see the final 10%. I think this book would do well with this business model.


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