Patricia Cornwell, “Book of the Dead”

A 16-year-old tennis star on vacation in Rome has been tortured and mutilated; a wealthy woman is killed in her beach front home; a young boy’s body is found in a marsh. All three murders appear unrelated, but Kay Scarpetta, using quiet determination and forensic science, is out to find the truth. With her niece, Lucy, a financially independent computer genius, and Pete Marino, a loyal detective who harbors romantic feelings for Scarpetta, at her side, she has every weapon in her arsenal to find and capture a coldblooded killer.

Plot Overview: Murder, Relationships and Forensic Pathology

Book of the Dead weaves together various storylines: Marino’s complicated feelings for Scarpetta combine with his alcoholism to create a testosterone-fueled confrontation; Lucy’s subsequent anger with Marino propels her to punish him as revenge; Scarpetta’s relationship with Benton Wesley, an FBI profiler and her long-term boyfriend, comes to a head; and Marilyn Self, a mentally unstable television host, nurtures an obsession with Scarpetta that has deadly consequences.

As a forensic pathologist, Scarpetta is observant, smart and intuitive. Her examinations and interpretations of bodies and situations are compelling, and Scarpetta is more than just a detective; she’s an educator. Cornwell, a forensic pathologist by profession, presents straightforward explanations of complicated medical conditions and terminology, making Book of the Dead the literary version of “CSI.” The result is a thriller filled with medical and psychological mysteries that only Scarpetta can unravel through intelligent reasoning.

Criticisms and Compliments

Patricia Cornwell is a ruthless writer, one who exploits the thoughts and actions of a sadistic serial killer. In Book of the Dead, her descriptions of the unknown killer are brutal, and the picture she paints of a young tennis star being tortured is both shocking and heartless. And, with the addition of Captain Poma, an egotistical Italian medico legale with the military police, and Marilyn Self, Book of the Dead has its share of unsavory, unsympathetic, malicious characters.

While Book of the Dead is a gripping read, it does have its weaknesses. Without having read previous Kay Scarpetta novels, it is difficult to discern ongoing storylines as Cornwell provides little background information. As a result, some character development seems shallow to readers who are unfamiliar with Cornwell’s characters, especially Pete Marino, Lucy and Benton Wesley. For readers new to the Kay Scarpetta series, it would be better to begin with Postmortem or Body of Evidence rather than Book of the Dead.


  • Scarpetta, Kay. Book of the Dead. Putnam Adult, 2007 ISBN 9780399153934
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