Dr. Kay Scarpetta, the most famous medical examiner in fiction (see
Cause of Death, p. 715, etc.), will have to fend for herself this
time, as her creator leaves her behind for a big-city cop novel set
in Charlotte, North Carolina. Not that Cornwell's heroines aren't
just as tough (and don't need to be) as Scarpetta. Police chief
Judy Hammer's force would die for her almost to a man; even her
ineffectual husband dreams of being ravished by her in full cop
regalia. Deputy Chief Virginia West, Hammer's head of
investigations, is married only to her job and has no energy for
diplomacy when Hammer assigns her to ride with Andy Brazil, the
hard-charging Charlotte Observer reporter who's earned top marks at
the volunteer police academy in order to snare the police beat at
his paper and make his stories more authentic. And what a story
Brazil's on the trail of: the Black Widow, a killer who preys on
visiting businessmen, ambushing them in their rented cars, shooting
them, and spraypainting their genitals orange (you won't believe
why). As if the Black Widow weren't menace enough, Brazil also has
to contend with slimy TV reporter Brent Webb and with vengeful
redneck Bubba Rickman, who, beaten up by Brazil while riding with
West, is convinced that "it was his calling . . . to smite them in
the name of America." The action boils furiously, but the hostility
- between cops and crooks, cops and the press, cops and cops - is
so unrelenting that eventually Cornwell's cast, divided into
superhuman workaholics and lesser mortals driven by envy and lust,
starts to get monotonous: You may hardly notice when Bubba and the
Black Widow get their oh-so-just deserts. Cornwell brings an edgy
authority, a gimlet eye for her city, and a taste for nonstop
conflict to the police novel, but not the commanding focus of
Wambaugh or Daley - or her own earlier forensic procedurals.
Charlotte, North Carolina has been dubbed "the hornet's nest of
America", and with Charlotte as her simmering background, Patricia
Cornwell propels us into the lives of a dynamic trio of heroes:
Andy Brazil, an ambitious young reporter and volunteer cop; Police
Chief Judy Hammer, the strong but troubled guardian of the law; and
her deputy chief Virginia West, a ravishing beauty who's married to
her job. As we walk the beat with Brazil, Hammer and West, we learn
about police work -- the excitement and the tedium -- as Patricia
Cornwell strips away the facade of the badge to show what motivates
the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
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