‘Unnatural Exposure’ by Patricia Cornwell (1997)

11Jan09

I don’t usually write about the crime novels that I read sometimes, but I just finished my first novel by Patricia Cornwell and felt compelled to make a comment. Plus, I’m trying not to be so ashamed of reading novels that are not published by McSweeney’s or usually compared to Pynchon.Patricia Cornell's 'Unnatural Exposure'

Unnatural Exposure is one of the many novels in Cornwell’s Scarpetta series, which follows the cases of Dr. Kay Scarpetta, the Chief Medical Examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Cornwell has written sixteen novels in this series, which perpetually hover somewhere on The New York Times Bestseller List, so I imagine that Cornwell and a sizable portion of United States denizens find Dr. Scarpetta appealing.

I really don’t.

I don’t know if she was cranky because she thought she might die from small pox, but I found Scarpetta thoroughly unlikable in this novel. Spending any time with her seems about as enjoyable as sitting through Bride Wars with all your faculties and a functioning brain. Scarpetta comes across as arrogant, privileged, peevish, self-involved, and practically humorless. Her predominant reactions ranged from irritation to anger and pretty much nothing in between. Her interactions with her niece Lucy managed to make Scarpetta marginally tolerable; however, her romantic interest Benton Wesley should probably run. Published in 1997, Unnatural Exposure falls in the middle of the series, so I’m definitely coming into things late. Perhaps Scarpetta has something in her past that explains her demeanor or even makes her very flawed personality endearing, but after reading this novel I don’t care about her enough to make the effort to find out.

I felt like Cornwell was treading water for almost two hundred pages, with the story finally picking up with the first death on Tangier Island. I don’t mind the misdirection of the dismemberment cases, but too much time was spent on these previous cases given that they remained unsolved at the end of the novel. In fact, the entire pacing of the novel felt rather awkward and very stop-and-start with Cornwell diverting from the case for some lengthy passages. I know that Cornwell set a precedent for including emerging technologies in forensic pathology in her work, but the incorporation of said technology really dates her novels. Cornwell also writes about technology, especially computer technology, in perhaps accessible but very inelegant ways. I also disliked Cornwell’s over-reliance on acronyms. If something had an acronym, Cornwell mentions it, even if the acronym is never used again, and she also drops the acronyms rather inelegantly. For example,

Getting close, I squatted and rubbed gloved fingers over deep gouges and scrapes in aluminum in an area where the Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, should have been.

Cornwell uses so many acronyms that I forgot several of their meanings when they were not referenced for many pages. In many of these instances, Cornwell could have used a few adjectives to prevent her readers from becoming muddled in an alphabet soup.

I was curious to read one of Cornwell’s novels because I’ve stumbled across her name several times recently in regards to LGBT equality issues. And it was on sale at Half-Price Books for a dollar. For her part, Unnatural Exposure is pretty gay, with a total of four queer characters. However, with the series’ central character failing to capture me, I think I’ll stick to Kinsey.

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