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Book of the Dead    by Patricia Cornwell order for
Book of the Dead
by Patricia Cornwell
Order:  USA  Can
Putnam, 2007 (2007)
Hardcover, CD
* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

'Scarpetta is back!' is what Patricia Cornwell announces in the publicity blurb printed on the advance review copy of her fifteenth book in the Kay Scarpetta series, Book of the Dead.

Ms. Cornwell, in the same informal note, says that she is 'very proud of this book,' a different kind of 'literary journey' that now more fully embraces the complicated world of forensic science, the Internet, computer hacking, terrorism, the war in Iraq, and a post-9/11 society in which everything has changed so dramatically.

Well, with that having been acknowledged, what will readers actually encounter when they dive into a copy of this long-awaited and much publicized book (which, by the way, had been advertised by the publisher for a much earlier release date, many months before the day on which Book of the Dead will finally hit the bookstores in October)?

When the story opens, Kay Scarpetta and her romantic interest, fellow pathologist Benton Wesley, are in Rome, Italy, where they are consultants assisting the International Investigative Response, a branch of the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes. The case-at-hand is the murder of a beautiful young tennis star, American Drew Martin; her horribly mutilated body was discovered near the Piazza Navona.

Italian officials, the FBI, and - of course Scarpetta - are eager to solve this most mysterious and most heinous crime. However, there are very few sensible clues. Bizarre evidence, which is slowly revealed in protracted exposition and helter-skelter narrative, points to a probable serial killer who has been given the moniker The Sandman because of his perverse placement of sand (from some mysterious, unidentifiable location) into the eye-sockets of his victim(s).

Meanwhile, having hit an apparent dead-end - at least for the time being - in the Drew Martin murder investigation in Rome, Scarpetta, formerly of Richmond, Virginia (at least until her abrupt departure under unpleasant circumstances), returns to her home and office in Charleston, South Carolina, where she - and her investigative assistant, the unpredictable Pete Marino - become involved in investigating another (seemingly unrelated) case, the murder of a young boy.

Then things get more and more complicated for Scarpetta (and for Cornwell's readers) as Dr. Marilyn Self ('the most famous psychiatrist in the world' and Scarpetta's relentless nemesis), Shandy Snook (Marino's latest romantic challenge and the unrestrained daughter of a potato chip tycoon), Scarpetta's niece Lucy (all grown-up and extraordinarily resourceful), and assorted other characters (both major and minor, eccentric and ordinary) converge in a slowly evolving case that involves plenty of intriguing relationships and more than a few surprises - especially in the final pages which contain the solution to Cornwell's 405 page enigma.

The vast legions of loyal Cornwell readers will be fascinated by Scarpetta's metamorphosis into someone who is now different and more complicated, and those same readers (and book-club promotions) will certainly ensure bestseller status for Book of the Dead.

As for myself, I prefer Cornwell's idiosyncratic forensic pathologist in Postmortem, Body of Evidence, Cruel and Unusual, and The Body Farm, as well as some other earlier entries in the Scarpetta series (which has always been more successful and more readable than Cornwell's other fiction and nonfiction).

To be more blunt, some wines (as Scarpetta would know) age much better than other wines, and newer vintages - in some cases - don't really measure up to earlier offerings; there is, within that statement, a succinct metaphorical assessment of Cornwell's fiction, especially Book of the Dead.

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