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Tom Chaney: A Trace of Awe

Of Writers and their Books, A Trace of Awe is an essay on Patricia Cornwell whom Tom says he will keep reading "because of the way she weaves a plot and for the deft skill with which she draws her disagreeable characters." This column first appeared 13 November 2005
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Joe Downing in Paris

By Tom Chaney

A Trace of Awe

I just finished a recent novel by Patricia Cornwell. The books is Trace, published last year [September 2004] and released this summer in mass market paperback -- that's the small size that will fit in a coat pocket or purse. They used to sell for fifty cents. Trace has a cover price of eight bucks -- a rate of inflation that puts the gas companies to shame.


Of course, I did not buy it. A customer brought it in to trade. That's the advantage of being in the used book business. The books come in, and they must be sampled before they are resold.

Patricia Cornwell is one of those writers whose work I always read. Half through one of her novels, invariably I am tempted to put it aside in disgust. But I can't do it. I am fascinated with almost every aspect.

I don't like any of the continuing characters. Kay Scarpetta -- lawyer, doctor, forensic pathologist -- quit cigarets after the first novel or two. Ever since she has been as obsessed with other characters' smoking as a friend of mine was about whisky. For years he took all he could get. When he went on the wagon, he tried to bring the rest of the world on board. A friend could have glass of wine with dinner once a week and that friend might as well be an alcoholic. Scarpetta was chief medical examiner in Virginia.

Scarpetta's sidekick, Pete Marino, former detective in New York and Richmond, Virginia, is now on his own. In the earlier novels he worked with Scarpetta in Richmond.

Both of them left Virginia five years ago, and are united in Richmond for Trace. Scarpetta has been asked to return by her successor -- ostensibly to investigate the death of a young girl, actually to demean her reputation in light of his own failure to run a competent organization in the medical examiner's office.

Marino is crude and rude. One suspects that it comes from his reaction to the evidently polished Scarpetta. Marino has kicked the nicotine habit but not without a great deal of moaning, though he knows tobacco will kill him. He still gets sloppy drunk on occasion.

The young girl's death has defied the forensic abilities of the current staff of the medical examiners. Scarpetta challenges one of her former assistants. Together they discover asphyxiation as the cause of death in a particularly cruel manner. The girl's murder is linked to a case with which Scarpetta's niece Lucy, now operating a private investigative service in Florida, is concerned. The genius Lucy is a disagreeable bundle of psychological problems.

Also related is the death of a heavy machinery operator who is demolishing the old medical examiner's building. The basement of that building contains the cremated remains of Scarpetta's former clients.

Thereby hangs the tale.

And it is quite a tale. Patricia Cornwell weaves the three attacks together in her masterful way. To tell anything more would spoil the story.

Booklist observes that in Trace "Traces of the smart, dynamic, yet vulnerable Scarpetta of the earlier novels are in evidence here, and Cornwell is in better control of her characters."

Despite my aversion to Cornwell's characters, despite the revulsion that her villains engender in me from wolf men to psychopaths, I will keep reading her books as fast as they pass over our counter.

But do not expect affection for heroine, sidekick, or villain. I am turned off by folks who keep "exiting vehicles" when a simple "leaving the car," or "getting out of the van" will do. If Scarpetta and Marino must refer to wrongdoers as "squirrels" once or twice, that's fine, but don't overdo it. Find another metaphoric name which degrades the pursued just as much.

I shall keep reading Cornwell because of the way she weaves a plot and for the deft skill with which she draws her disagreeable characters. But she tricked me. I have not read a horror novel I liked since an aunt presented me with Dracula as a Christmas present when I was a youngster. But Cornwell's skill has me suckered in -- disguised correctly as mystery.

My response can best be described in the theological sense of the word "awe." A professor of theology once explained to our class that the highest response to god was awe which he defined as a reaction to a mystery that both attracts and repels. And that is where Cornwell's great skill as a writer lies.

Agatha Christie's Miss Marple would make a fine grandmother. One would like to have a drink with Robert Parker or his detective Spencer. But I shall keep my distance from Cornwell and her creation, Kay Scarpetta, thank you very much.

Our intrepid editor [of the Hart County News-Herald Sunday editions], Ms Sandra Wilson, evidently possesses a television set, despite her commitment to the print media. I do not. She tells me, however that Patricia Cornwell and Kay Scarpetta have evidently engendered a number of CSI programs. Those initials, she replied to my blank stare, stand for Crime Scene Investigator. I wonder if response to those programs could be called "awe."



Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
THE BOOKSTORE
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
270-786-3084
Email: Tom Chaney
http://www.alibris.com/stores/horscave






This story was posted on 2013-01-06 02:13:01
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