ASHES TO ASHES
Carrie Grethen is back – as in on the very first page, back. She has sent Kay Scarpetta a letter, scrawled in red, full of disjointed phrasing. But as Benton Wesley studies the letter, he realizes that those disjointed ramblings are really challenges, threats and promises. At this point, Carrie has been in a facility for the criminally insane in New York City for the last five years, and her trial on multiple murder charges is but a month away.
Before Kay and Benton can fully absorb either the message or its ramifications, Kay is called by the ATF to the property of media mogul Kenneth Sparkes. There his home and outbuildings have been destroyed by fire, a virtual inferno. His stables, along with over 20 high-dollar horses, have been consumed also. And Kenneth Sparkes is missing.
Then four events occur within hours of each other. First, Kay discovers the badly burned body of a female in what appears to be the point of origin of the fire at the Sparkes home. Secondly, Carrie Grethen manages to escape that maximum security mental facility in NYC.
Next, Carrie sends a well-written and detailed letter to all the major newspapers on the East Coast. In that letter, she slanders Kay and Benton, accusing them of framing her for the murders. She exposes their affair and she exposes Lucy’s sexual orientation, accusing her of seduction for criminal purposes. Then she begs the masses to see that she is freed and that Kay, Benton and Lucy are made to pay.
And, finally, the FBI summons Benton to New York. He was the lead profiler on Carrie’s case all those years ago but he is now retired and no longer with the Bureau.
And when the dust settles from these events and their consequences, when Carrie Grethen deals her ultimate blow, everything the major characters – and the readers – have come to count on will be gone.
At the very end of Cornwell’s previous novel in the Scarpetta series, “Unnatural Exposure,” one particular scene with Kay and Benton stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. The subject matter of the scene came out of nowhere and seemingly had no real connection to the novel’s storyline. That scene felt very wrong and then punched my memory back to an earlier scene with Benton that had puzzled me also.
Then it hit me. Cornwell was telegraphing a major curve in her arc for the series. And, if my intuition was correct, she was either going to end the series with the next book or she was going to restructure the line-up of major characters. Well, she didn’t end the series!
With that final scene in mind, I began this book. By the end of the first chapter, I knew how it was going to happen and had confirmed, in my mind, who it was going to happen to. The only thing for it now was to turn the pages one by one, verifying the clues, waiting for the final blow and just wanting Cornwell to get it over with.
In trying to wrench her story arc in that different direction, Cornwell really makes a mess of it. First, it’s difficult to tell exactly how much time has passed since the conclusion of the previous novel. Secondly, Benton has retired from the FBI and we don’t know why. And Lucy has been drummed out of the FBI and we don’t know why that happened either. We just know that Benton is still relatively young, with his own consulting business, and that Lucy is now with the ATF.
And, as we read, the red herrings that Cornwell tosses into the soup become increasingly obvious. We know that Kay Scarpetta will not be spared all the blows, but she will remain. She is, after all, the “I” in the first person POV. But those herrings are heavily and repeatedly directed toward only two of the three remaining main characters.
Then, at the beginning of the dreaded scene that we have been moving inexorably toward, Cornwell writes every character but Kay totally out of character. The dialogue and action Cornwell writes for all but Kay comes off like something you’d see and hear in a third rate daytime drama. However, that cheesy, juvenile dialogue made me realize one thing. There had been three people “missing in action,” so to speak, that day, not just one.
The Scarpetta series is, and has always been, dark and gritty and never with a happy ending. The murder is always solved, but the killers are not always caught and justice is not always served. Like revenge, the entries in this series are best served cold, spacing them a month or so apart and interspersing them with lighter fare or something from a different genre.
This book started with ashes and it ended with ashes. And if my suspicions are correct about the import of that unusual scene in “Unnatural Exposure,” we’re not done here. The truth will out; it always does. And a Phoenix will rise from these ashes.
Cover Art From Goodreads