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Tom Chaney: Dysfunctional Heroes - Patricia Cornwell

Of Writers and their Books, Dysfunctional Heroes is an appreciation of Patricia Cornwell's novels. It first appeared 30 September 2007
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Tom Chaney: Grafton: Father and Daughter

By Tom Chaney

Dysfunctional Heroes

By now, gentle reader, you should know that my reading is, to put the best face on it, eclectic. Perhaps "haphazard" is a more accurate term.

A few days ago I picked up a once or twice read novel by Patricia Cornwell featuring her corpse-cutting medical examiner, Kay Scarpetta.

As you may know, Scarpetta is the chief of medical examiners in a fictional Virginia. She is aunt to a brilliant niece, Lucy who is headed for a career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Kay's policeman sidekick is Detective Pete Marino perhaps the ultimate example of political incorrectness. Scarpetta's lover is married F.B.I. agent Benton Wesley.

Kay herself is divorced from a man who must be glad, like Ishmael in Moby Dick or the messenger to Job wailing of destruction, to have escaped.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy reading Cornwell. I even go back deliberately to reread her every now and again.

But, having just seen a couple of plays at Kentucky Repertory Theatre about dysfunctional people and, in the case of Dearly Departed, whole families, I was struck by Cornwell's ability to create such a cast of heroes brilliant each in their own field but so enthralled with themselves as to be unable to maintain satisfactory relationships with those whom they love and with whom they work.

Scarpetta as medical examiner is committed to "giving a voice to the dead" who cannot speak for themselves. Yet in her personal relationships she is devastatingly judgmental, especially to her niece -- daughter of her sister from whom both Kay and Lucy are estranged. In turn the sister has been a most unsatisfactory parent for Lucy -- jealous of Lucy's admiration of Kay, she escapes into her own fantasy world of writing children's fiction.

Just finishing college, Lucy is brilliant in computer science, creating programs for the F.B.I. that help fight crime. Yet she is unable to escape the parent-like role of her aunt no matter how hard she tries. At the same time she must fend off the jealousy of her mother who is unable to see her own failure and resents Lucy's turbulent affection for Kay. Both Kay and her sister are perfectly capable of directing the lives of others whether the direction is wanted or not.

And then there is poor Pete Marino the former New York City detective, now working in Virginia for the Richmond police and as consultant to the F.B.I. His hard shell of racism, anti-feminism, political incorrectness polished by beer and nicotine is the bane of Scarpetta's existence. Kay never fails to monitor his alcohol and nicotine consumption and to correct his behavior.

Pete is the target of Kay's scorn about smoking -- a scorn with the whine of a Stryker saw growing out of her own pride in giving up cigarets. He cannot escape the evangelism of the former smoker Scarpetta.

Pete, while extremely fond of Lucy, cannot avoid the judgmental in loco parentis stance favored by most conservative religious schools. He teaches her to shoot, but has trouble with everything from her hair style to her choice of lovers.

And there is Benton, nearing the end of an unsatisfactory marriage; head over heels in love with Kay; knowing he must resist; knowing that he cannot. And Benton is the one responsible for the volatile mix of Pete, Kay, Lucy, and himself -- all involved in his unit of the F.B.I. which profiles the bad guys.

One wonders how this unlikely crew ever runs to earth the baddest of the bad. Somehow they do.

Perhaps this cacophony of functional dysfunctionality is what draws me back again and again to Patricia Cornwell's novels. I re-read three just last week.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-09-30 05:07:43
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