Monday, November 29, 2010

The Cornwell Factor

This is it.  The blog I have been waiting to do since I first started Reading Under the Covers.  This is my comprehensive review of the thrilling works of Patricia Cornwell, who burst onto the literary stage just over 20 years ago with her first novel, Postmortem.  The book launched the incredibly successful Kay Scarpetta series which just reached book number 18 with the release of Port Mortuary, which will be available in bookstores tomorrow.  This blog post is Cornwell and Scarpetta's story.

Patricia Cornwell, a native of Florida, has lived something of a charmed life.  At five, her father left the family on Christmas day and Patricia's mother moved the family to North Carolina, where they lived not so far from Billy Graham's church.  To add to Cornwell's already traumatic childhood, her mother could not mentally handle raising her, and Patricia was sent to live with foster parents.  A quiet strength built up inside Cornwell during these years and her hardships laid the path for great things.

Cornwell received a Bachelor's in English and eventually married one of her English professors and took a job writing the crime beat for her local newspaper.  The job was transformative for her future career as it led her to a job working at the Chief Medical Examiner's office in Richmond, VA.  This was where Kay Scarpetta was born.

Dr. Kay Scarpetta starts off as the Chief Medical Examiner of Richmond in Cornwell's early novels.  Scarpetta proves to be as much a detective as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot.  She finds clues to murders on the autopsy table and she's not afraid to go to the darkest areas of Richmond to uncover the truth surrounding a mysterious death.  Scarpetta is surrounded by a faithful ensemble cast including her niece; Lucy, colleague/boyfriend/husband; Benton Wesley, and the ever ambiguous Pete Marino.

Although America has become fascinated by the world of forensics resulting in television shows such as CSI and Bones, Cornwell's first novel was turned down SEVEN TIMES before Scribner's finally published it.  Publishers told her that nobody would want to read about what goes on in a morgue.  I'm sure when Postmortem hit the bestseller list all the publishers who had turned Cornwell down simultaneously smacked their heads and exclaimed, "I should've had a V8!"  Fledgling writers should remember this when feeling their own despair about not being published.  Even the best have to fight to get their books on the shelf.

Even though the success of her novels has made her an international crime fiction icon, Patricia Cornwell's life has not been without its struggles.  In 2007, she bravely announced that she is gay and is currently married to Dr. Staci Gruber, who teaches at Harvard Medical School.  Cornwell has also addressed having bipolar disorder, which is perhaps why some of her novels are particularly dark.

Cornwell's own writing has come under scrutiny in the past decade.  In 2003, Cornwell released her first Scarpetta novel in three years, Blow Fly.  The book was criticized for a choppy plot and the fact that the point of view moved from first person (Scarpetta's) to the third person.  Subsequent novels were also bashed by critics.  Even when Cornwell branched out and started two new series (Andy Brazil and Win Garano) the reviews didn't improve.  In fact, they got worse in the case of the Andy Brazil novels.  However, it is interesting to note that her novels have gotten better since marrying Dr. Gruber.  Just my own observation.  Cornwell has also said that she will only be focusing on the Scarpetta series and has no other plans to write more novels about Andy Brazil or Win Garano.

Probably the biggest upheaval Cornwell has faced is the media buzz surrounding her controversial book, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed in which she claims that painter, Walter Sickert was responsible for the Whitechapel murders.  Ripper and Sickert experts were, and still are, infuriated with Cornwell's accusations, but after reading the book myself, I tend to side with Cornwell.

Through it all, Cornwell has remained a class act.  She stays connected with fans through Twitter and Facebook and always shows an interest in her readers and what they have to say.  I'm actually going to a signing in Chicago this Thursday where I will have a chance to meet her in person.  I hope I remember how to talk.

Port Mortuary has already been available in the UK for about a month and has been receiving great reviews.  The book is once again told through Scarpetta's point of view, and she is facing her toughest case yet.  A body was left in the morgue freezer where it continued to bleed, indicating the person was still alive when placed there.  Scarpetta must figure out what happened before her career and reputation are ruined.  I can't wait.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

I call them Salander's Principles. One of them is that a bastard is always a bastard, and if I can hurt a bastard by digging up shit about him, then he deserves it.-Lisbeth Salander-The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

What do you think of when you think of Sweden?  I used to think of ABBA, Ikea, and blonde people frolicking in open fields.  Turns out, Sweden is bleak as hell according to Stieg Larsson’s
Millennium Trilogy.  However, these books are anything but depressing and are the type of novels that come along only once in a decade.  The series, which consists of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest have become an integral part of pop culture selling millions of copies worldwide, spawning three films in Sweden, and now a U.S. remake of “Dragon Tattoo” is in the works.  Perhaps it is the fact that there will never be any more novels in the series which has jettisoned them to such an iconic status.
Stieg Larsson passed away unexpectedly before “Dragon Tattoo’s” Swedish release.  He apparently had begun work on a fourth book in the series, but it was never completed.  Larsson’s girlfriend of 30 years, Eva Gabriellson wants to finish the novel and publish it, but Swedish law will not allow her.  In my personal opinion, this blows, but now I’m just editorializing.  Onto the book itself.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens at a rather sluggish pace, detailing a cold case involving a supposedly murdered girl, Harriet Vanger, who’s body was never found.  We also meet a journalist, Mikael Blomkvist who’s career has been ruined after a piece he’s been working on falls apart.  It’s hard to see exactly where Larsson is going with all this, but once you get through the first couple of chapters, the pace picks up considerably.
Blomkvist finds himself in the employment of Harriet’s uncle, Martin Vanger, who has become virtually obsessed with his niece’s disappearance.  What starts out for Blomkvist as a job writing Vanger’s autobiography soon turns into an investigation as to what really happened to Harriet.  Blomkvist is met with countless roadblocks in his investigation in the form of the Vanger family who are secretive about their lives and Harriet’s past.
The story shifts point of view when we are finally introduced to the girl with the dragon tattoo, Lisbeth Salander.  A pierced, tattooed, spiky haired, sexually ambiguous waif, Salander will kill you as soon as look at you (sounds like my last date).  Salander has a knack for investigating and is hired by Vanger to investigate Blomkvist before Vanger hires him.  Even though Salander seems to know everything about everybody, we know virtually nothing about her.  What is known is that she is considered mentally unfit to run her own affairs, and is left at the mercy of an abusive guardian.  Don’t worry though--Salander always wins.
One thing Salander fails to recognize is that Blomkvist is also an investigator to some extent so it’s only a matter of time before he finds out of Salander’s investigation into his life.  When they eventually join forces, albeit unwillingly, the real fun begins.  Salander and Blomkvist’s investigation into Harriet’s disappearance is filled with action, suspense, and many pots of coffee (buy coffee before reading this book because you will always have a taste for it).  Although the ending of the book is fairly predictable, the journey is enthralling.
In short, the novel is fantastic.  Salander is sure to become one of the classic heroines in crime fiction.  I plan on reviewing the other two books in the future as well.  Hopefully, Swedish law will change and allow us one last adventure with Lisbeth Salander.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Quick Update

Hello my neglected readers.  I'm so sorry I haven't blogged in a couple of weeks.  Please don't report me to BFS (Blogger Protective Services).  I would hate to see you end up with foster bloggers.

As you may recall, one of my earlier reviews was about Kathryn Stockett's "The Help."  As luck would have it, she's going to be speaking just a few hours of south of where I live in Evansville, IN and doing a book signing.  So Mom and I are busily sharpening the ends of our toothbrushes on the off chance we need to shank someone in order to get a good spot in line.

There is also going to be yet another book sale over in Dayton, OH the following day, but I haven't decided whether or not I can/will play hookie from school.  We'll see.

Anyway, I have some big reviews planned for November, but not the time to write them now.  One is more of a rant and less of a review.  I'm also going to be writing a comprehensive review on the works of Patricia Cornwell who is coming out with the 18th novel in her Kay Scarpetta series at the end of the month!  I could just wet myself.

Stay tuned until next time.  Be well and be well read.