Book Review: Blow Fly, by Patricia Cornwell

Blow Fly, by Patricia Cornwell. Berkeley Press. Penguin Books. 2003. Paperback. $10.

I’m not going to pull any punches with this book review. I did not like this novel. Not only did I not like this novel, I didn’t like the characters, either. “Red Mist” was very good. I liked “Port Mortuary.” I usually give an author 2 books to draw me in. I gave Patricia four books, as I also read and somewhat enjoyed “Point of Origin.” I’m not sure I will read more.

Every character, from Kay Scarpetta, her daughter Lucy, her love interest, Marino – all of them, these are the most humorless characters I’ve run across in years of reading crime fiction. Blow Fly was painful to read, not simply due to the graphic nature of the crimes, but the humorless drama between all of the main characters made reading the novel a humorless endeavor.

The larger problem is these characters never seem to be at ease with each other, across all of Cornwell’s novels. No humor, little to no compassion, few light-hearted moments; I’ve rarely experienced novels with so many characters with such sullen and angry personalities throughout a series of novels. No circumstances in real life lack such humor and I’m not sure why Cornwell is presenting her characters as such pessimistic, one-dimensional people, especially Kay Scarpetta. Kay, Lucy, and Pete come across as simply pissed-off, angry people. And, I’m simply not liking any of them.

Blow Fly features a serial killer preparing for his execution while his brother hides out in a Louisiana swamp, also serial killing young women. Neither of these fine fellows are in any way interesting, either. They clearly both deserve to die. The imprisoned serial killer brother escapes in as ludicrous a scene as I can imagine. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a murderer escaping from prison while literally walking down the hallway to his own execution. I’m pretty sure, with the possible exception of some “Expendables”-style or “Ocean’s 11”-inspired scheme, aiding in a prisoner escape during an execution is impossible.

“What happened?! Where is James Larry Bruce?” Because all serial killers have three first names.
“Uhhmm. He escaped,” says Guard 1, sheepishly.
“He got the jump us! We weren’t expecting him to put up a fight in the hallway!” Guard 2 cries.
“So, he jumps you two, plus the State Police, runs through the media, the family of the victims, the protesters against criminal punishment, and the one homeless guy, and escapes?”
“YES! We don’t believe it, either! Man, that guy was good.”

The events above I contrived and are not Cornwell’s, merely a satire of the events leading to the escape of a fellow on his way to receive his lethal injection.

Ugh. Not a good book. In Cornwell’s defense, because I’m uncomfortable saying this book sucks, Blow Fly was one of her first books. The latter books appear to get a little better, the personalities more “normal,” and the plots less full of improbable circumstances. If I had read this book first, I may never have reached for a second, though, based on the jaundiced nature of the characters.

Let’s talk some geography. Chapter 8 begins with a good description of downtown Baton Rouge. The capital of Louisiana is in Baton Rouge, both the new capitol building and the old capitol building. In the opening paragraph, the Parish Coroner, Dr. Sam Lanier, is looking west from an office window, casting his gaze across a portion of the Mississippi River. He sees the former state capitol, the USS Kidd destroyer (the novel says, “battleship,” but the website and the National Park Service both state, “destroyer”), and the Old Mississippi Bridge. Additionally, we are reminded of the assassination of Huey Long on those capitol steps.

Later, Chapter 112, Lucy and Marino head out in a Bell 407 helicopter to search for the encampment of the escaped serial killer, his brother, and this brother’s nutty girlfriend.

Quoting from page 494:

This is a time when the GPS will be of no value, nor will any other navigation instruments. A flight chart isn’t going to be of much use, either, so she spreads open a Baton Rouge map on her lap and runs her finger southeast, along Route 408, also known as Hooper Rd.

“Where we’re going is off the map,” she says into her mike. “Lake Maurepas. We keep going in this direction, towards New Orleans, and hopefully don’t end up at Lake Pontchartrain. We’re not going that far, but if we do, we’ve overflown Lake Maurepas, and Blind River and Dutch Bayou. I don’t think that will happen.”

There really is a place described in the novel. Some authors will take literary license and make up a place within a place. Lee Child does this frequently, creating towns where none exist, or fictional military bases, etc., to advance his story. I’m not being critical; I’m simply stating some authors use real places. Others don’t.

To contrast, James Lee Burke, author of the Dave Robicheaux series, and one of my favorite authors, sets many of his novels in the very same geography as Blow Fly. His characters drive between Baton Rouge, Hammond, New Orleans, to Lafayette. Bayou Teche is as much a character in JLB’s novels as any person.

Looking for geography in literature isn’t very hard. The technology of the Internet, though, can help bring these stories even more to life. Sharing these locations with students can help encourage them to pay attention to the environment, and perhaps be inspired to think about their neighborhood, their town, their city, their rural life from a different perspective, perhaps.

But, don’t take my word for it; you may like her book. She does write well. I like the forensic science, when she gets around to examining a body. Cornwell, no doubt, has an eye for detail, for examination, and for deducing cause and effect. I wish there were more of those traits expressed, and less animosity and drama among her primary primary characters. Conflict is good and drives a story but there has to be a balance.

Thanks for reading my review.

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