Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell

January 27, 2010

postmortem-cornwell Plot summary (with spoilers): As the novel opens, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, the chief medical examiner for the commonwealth of Virginia, is called to a crime scene in the middle of the night. A woman has been strangled, and while that alone ordinarily wouldn’t warrant the wake-up call, this case is different. It’s thought to be the third such crime in recent weeks, indicating that there’s a serial killer on the loose.

Once Scarpetta arrives at the scene and performs a preliminary exam of the body, she confirms the bad news. The victim, Lori Petersen, was strangled and tortured in the same way as the previous two. What’s more, once Scarpetta completes the exam back in her lab, she finds traces of a glittery substance on the body. This same mysterious substance was on the other two bodies as well.

The lead investigator in the case is a brusque cop named Marino. He and Scarpetta don’t have much of a working relationship, probably because Scarpetta can’t stand his boorish behavior. But she obviously has to put aside her feelings in order to help get the killer, dubbed “Mr. Nobody” because he’s likely an everyday, average kind of guy, off the streets.

The novel unfolds as a typical police procedural, with the cops hitting a dead end at the beginning, suspecting the wrong person, etc. etc. until more bodies and more clues surface. There are a few subplots as well, including some office politics with Scarpetta’s boss, her involvement with the district attorney Bill Boltz, and her uneven relationship with her 10-year-old niece.

On the way to the finish line, Cornwell hints at a couple of suspects and puts the heroine in danger before the real killer is revealed.


  • Kay Scarpetta as a character seemed pretty decent, and was definitely the highlight of this novel. I didn’t completely like her though, but I think that’s because the author intended her to be flawed.
  • It was kind of fun reading about DNA being the crime-fighting tool of the future. This book was published in 1990 or something, so Cornwell was definitely on the cutting edge there!


  • The whole subplot concerning office politics and whether or not Scarpetta was responsible for media leaks was completely boring — and ultimately unnecessary. The book was plenty long enough without getting sidetracked with this stuff.
  • I don’t understand why a medical examiner would be so involved with the actual investigation. I mean, I get that this is just a novel and all, but it still struck me as strange, especially when Scarpetta was musing to herself about the possible suspects. I know the Bones series does the same thing, and it feels off for me in those books as well. Maybe that’s why I don’t particularly like these works!
  • There were lots and lots of slow passages in this book. Along with the office politics, I can’t believe all the pages Cornwell devoted to discussions of computer stuff, like databases and SQL. And to have all that info coming out of the mouth of a 10-year-old? Yeah, right. All those parts put me to sleep.
  • I hate when the killer turns out to be someone not even mentioned until the reveal. Yes, that’s how it sometimes works in “real” police investigations, but in books, it’s more fun to have a list of possible suspects to consider instead of having the author just tell you it was some 911 operator.


As you can see, my list of Dislikes far outweighs the Likes here. I know it’s not always fair to judge an entire series based on the first book because often writers grow and are able to iron out the rough patches. But honestly, I just don’t see why I should come back to Scarpetta and Cornwell. I didn’t like the writing style all that much and thought the murder mystery was just average. I give Postmortem just 2 stars out of 5.

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