Fresh from tussling with a nonpareil real-life serial killer (Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed, not reviewed), Cornwell brings back forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta for her first outing in three years.
The interval’s been so tough on Scarpetta that now she requires a third-person narrator and chapters short as a gasp. She’s left her job as Virginia’s Chief Medical Examiner, and she’s been mourning her FBI lover Benton Wesley, not realizing her niece Lucy Farinelli helped him fake his death so that he could go underground. Jean-Baptiste Chandonne, the Wolfman Scarpetta blinded and brought to book in The Last Precinct (2000), may be on Death Row in Texas, but he’s still as dangerous as ever, promising Scarpetta help in tracking down the killer of Charlotte Dard in Baton Rouge eight years ago if she’ll come visit him and promise to give him the fatal needle. Back in Louisiana, Jay Talley, Chandonne’s handsome if equally depraved twin, is kidnapping, torturing, and murdering a series of middle-aged Wal-Mart shoppers in literally unspeakable ways. One problem this time, in fact, is that Cornwell never provides any of the unblinking set pieces that have made her so widely imitated.
A more serious problem is that the perils feel recycled, shapeless, and so soaked in evil that they’re headed nowhere in particular for Sisyphus Scarpetta.