The latest outing for Dr. Kay Scarpetta is packed with too-close-for-comfort encounters. The murder mystery that the medical examiner tangles with in “Dust” hits close to Scarpetta’s home, her Cambridge Forensic Center office, her technical wizard of a niece, Lucy Farinelli, and her FBI profiler husband, Benton Wesley.
Upping the nail-biting suspense factor is the story’s breakneck pace: The action opens on a dark and stormy winter’s night — the eve of Benton’s birthday — doesn’t let up for nearly 500 pages, and largely takes place within a 24-hour period.
Scarpetta is just recovering from a bout of flu immediately following a traumatic weekend working the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Barely out of the fever-filled woods, Scarpetta’s mind wanders easily, transforming an innocuous brown carpet in her bedroom into horrifying hallucinations: “I smell the sweet putrid odor of blood. Dark red streaks and drops on tables and chairs. Pictures colored with crayons and Magic Markers, and a pegboard hung with children’s knapsacks inside a brightly cluttered first-grade classroom where everyone is dead.”
Still, when a 4 a.m. call from Detective Pete Marino alerts her to a dead woman discovered on a Massachusetts Institute of Technology football field — practically in Scarpetta’s backyard — the medical examiner is on the case. From the start, elements of the murder continue to throw up uneasy connections to various aspects of the ME’s personal and professional life.
Even worse, as Benton notes early on, they may be looking at a crime that “someone doesn’t want . . . solved.” Starting with complications that could involve a sinister-sounding financial company called Double S, organized crime, political corruption, a strange fluorescent dust, and a creepy game of rock-paper-scissors, the murder also suggests uncomfortable possible ties to a set of serial murders that Benton is working in Washington.
The usual dynamics apply: Scarpetta’s team’s razor-sharp, in-office forensic investigations; Lucy’s sometimes-questionable ethics; and Scarpetta’s aggressive-yet-intimate exchanges with Marino, her former lead investigator who’s newly back on the police force and determined to put their professional relationship back on an even keel (or, as he keeps reminding her, she’s no longer the boss of him).
Marino, in fact, gets some of the best quips, from dubbing annoying news correspondent Barbara Fairbanks “Barbara Unfairbanks” to describing the scene of a crime all too vividly — “It looks like someone spilled a vat of borscht in here” — to admonishing Scarpetta to use more straightforward language with her less technically minded colleagues: “How about for once not talking like a nerd on ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and just give me a garden-variety guess.”
Scarpetta’s straight-shooting descriptions give us specifics of what being zapped by a stun gun feels like, immerse us in the panicked death throes of murder victims, and expose us to detailed images of blood spurts, spatters, splatters, and trajectories. We get knee-deep — as well as gore-deep — into cutting-edge technology, this time tantalized by the darker aspects of biometric technology and the so-called forensic app, “a hand-held way of searching almost anything you can think of, assuming you have access to databases that are off-limits to most people.”
On the slightly lighter side, there are squabbles between Scarpetta and Lucy over who spoils their dog more and a sarcastic dig at the too-easy danger of grabbing headlines off the Internet. Overall, Scarpetta’s 21st outing provides the standard — read excellent — Patricia Cornwell fare, plus a real-world-related tidbit: “Dust” contains an element of what the author has succinctly described as “vengeful anger” targeted at her onetime financial advisers, partly by giving Cornwell’s characters free rein when it comes to venting about the sleaziest and most vicious aspects of so-called “money management.” Hell hath no fury indeed.
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.