chaos300Written by Patricia Cornwell — We’ve reached number 24 in the Kay Scarpetta series and the much put-upon medical examiner shows no sign of letting up. Since she took the crime fiction scene by storm in 1990 with the multi-award winning Postmortem, Cornwell’s books have sold some 100 million copies in 36 languages, in over 120 countries. She’s authored 29 New York Times bestsellers.

Obviously a woman who knows her way around a good plot, then. So how come there isn’t one in this book? It takes an interminable time for anything to actually happen. I don’t know about the ‘chaos’ of the title, because our heroine spends much of the early part of this book just walking around. It reminded me more of Walking with Wainwright, or maybe that should be Strolling with Scarpetta?

It all begins on a hot, hot day in Cambridge, Massachusetts in early September, where Scarpetta has foolishly decided to use Shanks’s pony to get to a dinner date with her husband Benton. Her sister Dorothy is due to fly in for a visit later in the day, arriving just in time to hear Scarpetta give a keynote speech to intellectuals and policy makers at Harvard University. The siblings don’t get on and Scarpetta wonders whether her manipulative sister has another agenda.

So far, so humdrum, until she receives a call from police investigator Pete Marino about a supposed breach of the peace in sleepy Cambridge. It’s not normally something to bother the chief medical examiner about, but as she is purported to have been one of the people involved in the disturbance, Pete feels it is only right to give her fair warning. Someone has taken a short exchange between Scarpetta and her chief of staff Bryce and blown it out of all proportion. But who, and why?

It’s just one of many strange little events that are designed to keep Scarpetta on edge throughout this tale. She is also receiving cryptic messages from a stalker called Tailend Charlie – and then a woman she met briefly only hours before is found dead in the park, under very mysterious circumstances. Scarpetta is called to the scene… and then we have to wait, and wait, and wait, until she actually gets there.

Chaos is a convoluted, confusing, disjointed and ultimately disappointing read. We have page upon page of Scarpetta internalising, Marino barking and Benton looking mysterious but precious little action. One of the advantages (or some might say disadvantages) of reading on a Kindle is seeing precisely how far into the book you have reached. I kept my eye on that total as I progressed and it was 60 per cent plus before Scarpetta did any actual work.

A strange one, this, because numerous plot offshoots do nothing to give the story any sense of urgency or cohesion. The finale is overcooked too, with enough loose ends to weave together yet another Scarpetta saga in the near future.

Perhaps dyed-in-the-wool Cornwell fans will lap this up but Chaos is certainly not the book to start with if you are new to the author because there are occasions when what has gone before is taken too much as read. Instead, go back to early Scarpetta, such as the aforementioned Postmortem,  Cruel and Unusual or Black Notice. Then you’ll see why she is such a popular character. Sadly, these days she’d be better off taking early retirement.

For something forensic but with a bit more cohesion try Speaking in Bones by Kathy Reichs, and for a grittier Massachusetts setting also by a woman author there’s Die Again by Tess Gerritsen.


CFL Rating: 2 Stars

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  1. Elena Reply

    So sad to hear that Cornwell and the Scarpetta series are not doing well by so many people whose taste I trust. I am currently writing my thesis on her early work and I think it’s fantastic. However, I have been warned that things go downhill from book 9 onwards (more or less). Oh well, I guess I’ll retain all her early work and forget about the most recent releases!

  2. Anthony James Reply

    I used to love them and read them right up to the one which IIRC involved some craziness in a nuclear power station which was unintentionally hilarious and I never went back to them.

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