“METHINKS THOU DOST PROTEST TOO MUCH”
Kay Scarpetta has not handled Benton Wesley’s death well. She has worked herself into the ground. She has distanced herself from her friends and employees. She has even started smoking again. She is mired in guilt and regret over every unkind word she ever spoke to Benton. No, Kay Scarpetta is not handling her grief well at all.
Now, just before the second Christmas since Benton’s death, Senator Frank Lord, one of Kay’s oldest friends and professional confederates, delivers to her a letter from Benton, a letter he left with Lord specifically for Kay in the event of his death. In that letter he asks her to remember their life and love together and believe that he is still somehow able to be aware of her and look after her. Then he asks her to metaphorically take his hand and walk with him, through memories, into her new life.
Upon reading the letter, Scarpetta loses it completely. But even as Senator Lord comforts her, he tells her that he must now distance himself as she has become a political liability to him. Lucy refuses to talk to her, not about the letter, not about anything else. Marino will not listen to her either, only talking about some decomposed body that has been found in a cargo container unloaded from a Belgian ship at Richmond’s port. So, feeling abandoned by all and in a frantic attempt to belay the emotional pain, she drives herself to the docks, ready to immerse herself in yet another case.
The body of the man in the cargo container has a note with it. This note bids farewell to “le loup-garou,” a French phrase that translates as “werewolf.” However, this cryptic note is just one of the increasingly perplexing problems that will confront Kay within the next 24 hours. First, when she arrives on scene, there are none of the typical responders present, no CSI people, no ambulance, no recovery team, no one but a lone female rookie detective with a surly attitude. Secondly, when Marino arrives at the scene, Kay learns that he is no longer a homicide detective and has been reassigned as a night shift watch commander and, thus, shouldn’t be there at all.
Thirdly, the four-months new Deputy Chief, Diane Bray, arrives on scene, oozing power, seduction and entitlement with every step, the epitome of sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace. Bray makes it clear to Kay that she is responsible for the new protocols at the crime scene and that she has deliberately reassigned Marino so as to break up the professional relationship between Marino and Kay. And Bray goads her about Benton’s death.
Unfortunately, these situations are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Before she can finish the autopsy on “Container Man,” Kay discovers that her grief-driven blinders have hidden from her several very serious problems that have occurred over the last few weeks in her own office. One is the almost daily theft of everything from cell phones to paper clips from the more open areas of the Medical Examiner’s Office.
Secondly, someone has hijacked Kay’s online account information and is posing as her on an Internet medical advice website. The “advice” being disseminated is sarcastic in tone and marginal in truth. And it has become an embarrassment to her employees and her superiors.
Thirdly, someone has hijacked her office email account and is sending directives to both her employees and her superiors, directives clearly designed to get her in trouble with the media, with the public and with her bosses.
When the murder of a convenience store operator takes place shortly after finding Container Man and the crime scene contains trace evidence identical to that recovered in the cargo container, Kay fears that an international serial killer is at large in Richmond. But, more immediately troubling, she finds that Bray has ordered the CSI team to begin processing the clerk’s body prior to the arrival of a medical examiner.
This action on Bray’s part is actually illegal according to Virginia state law and makes any evidence obtained from the body now inadmissible in court. When Kay informs Bray that the State Prosecutor’s Office will take a very dim view of her illegal actions, the gauntlet is thrown and we know that only one of the two will survive – professionally, personally or both.
While the mystery that is Container Man is both convoluted and medially unique, it is only the vehicle by which the real purpose for this novel is transported. The true focus appears to be the grief and the guilt over Benton’s death that is slowly destroying Kay, Marino and Lucy at their very cores. In this novel, Benton’s death suffuses every page. In fact, the first two pages of the book are so emotionally charged that tears would fail to flow from someone only if they were truly made of stone.
POSSIBLE SPOILERS FOLLOW:
For the third book in a row, Cornwell intimates that Benton’s death would be more accurately described with quotation marks around the word, that something is seriously amiss despite the autopsy report. While the behavioral symptoms expressed by Kay are primarily those of grief, the behaviors exhibited by Marino and Lucy are more exactly attributed to guilt, to the keeping of secrets. And those secrets are eating them alive.
Everyone who has read “Point of Origin” knows that both Marino and Lucy disappeared for the entire day on which the remnants of Benton’s “body” were found. Every reader knows that Benton deliberately avoided Kay before all three went off the grid.
Now, go back to the first page and read Benton’s letter again, particularly the last few paragraphs. Then go back and read the scene between Marino and Kay in the hotel room in France when Marino brings up the very idea that Benton could be alive, that a cover-up could be in place, that she needs to study the autopsy report for “errors.”
Maybe the letter was written several years ago. Maybe Marino is really trying to help Kay get over her grief by using a type of reverse psychology on her. Maybe Lucy is genuine when she repeatedly tells Kay that she needs to find someone else. But with all this “advice” coming back to back now, after more than a year has passed without any such encouragement, I tend to think Cornwell has written a case of “Methinks thou dost protest too much.”
Cover Art From Goodreads