Reading one of Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta books is like catching up with an old friend – a clever, ambitious and loyal old friend who just happens to not only be the Chief Medical Examiner in Boston, but also a great cook. In that sense, I really enjoyed The Bone Bed, the 20th in the Scarpetta series. It’s wonderful discovering how far Kay has come since her days in Virginia, and finding out what and where she’s up to now in her professional and personal life, a life that is defined and constantly tormented by the dead and those whose lives end suddenly.
The Bone Bed opens with a typically busy day in the life of Kay Scarpetta. As she receives uncontextualised footage of a missing woman on a boat accompanied by a severed ear, bodies are brought into the mortuary. Puzzled by what the video signifies, apart from a gruesome crime being committed, Scarpetta is also distracted by a court appearance she has to make, one she feels has the potential to damage her formidable reputation. Adding to her unease is the claim one of the bodies brought into the morgue that morning died from tumbling down stairs. Before she can focus too closely on either of these things, Sacrpetta is called to a scene where an almost extinct turtle has floundered in the local bay, caught up not only in lines and other ocean paraphernalia, but with a dead body as well.
When her friend and colleague, the irascible Marino, is linked to at least one of the deaths, tensions rise. Never doubting Marino’s innocence and resenting deeply the FBI’s involvement in the cases, Scarpetta works against the clock. Discovering a relationship between the crimes, however, does little to shed light on a growing body count and the fact guilty people are walking free and the innocent are being found guilty. With the killer still on the loose and with Scarpetta and those she cares about in the law’s and the felon’s sights, and with her personal life threatening to unravel, Scarpetta must thrust aside her worries and focus in order to save not only her friends and family but herself.
I don’t know what it was about The Bone Bed that didn’t grab me in the way other Scarpetta books have. From the outset, I knew this wasn’t going to be the smooth, page-turning read I usually except from a Cornwell novel. This was because within the first fifty or so pages, as the Chief tries to squeeze in rescuing a body from the cold waters of the bay, our protagonist mentions her looming appearance at the court and how much she resents it – not once, or twice, but dozens and dozens of times. At one stage, Marino makes a sarcastic comment about her carping. I wanted to cheer and add my own – the reader gets it: Scarpetta doesn’t want to be in court and regrets something she said in an email. But the repetitions of thoughts, feelings and actions continue beyond this mere reference. In many ways, this is symptomatic of the book. What’s contained within the pages – in terms of character, plot, motivation and point of view, has been done before in previous books – only better. Not only are Marino’s actions from the past resurrected, but so are Benton’s – ad nauseum. Throw Lucy into the mix and there was a great deal of time spent unnecessarily covering old (and frankly redundant) territory. It stalled the pace and plot as opposed to moving it forward. Also, there were a couple of minor characters who barely served the story and whose actions didn’t ring true. That’s not to say this isn’t a good read, it is, and I still admire and like Kay enormously and Cornwell is an excellent writer who draws the reader into the forensic details of the investigation with ease. I did want to tell Scarpetta to shut up whining and get on with it a few times and also not to be such a git (over a bloke); but one thing Kay is perfectly capable of doing is giving herself a sound scolding – and she does. Often.
All in all a good read, but not one of Cornwell’s best.