I’m reading the latest Patricia Cornwell book, Book of the Dead. It’s another compelling, brutal tale that revolves around the life of Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta. While I don’t always enjoy these books – they are grisly and the quality varies wildly – I always like spending time with Scarpetta. I like and even admire her. She’s honest, brilliant, hardworking and kind. She may well be one of my favorite imaginary people.
1. Kay was introduced in the book Postmortem in 1990. She has starred in 15 Patricia Cornwell novels to date.
2. She was born in (approx.) 1949 in Miami, Florida. Her father succumbed to leukemia when she was about 13. His slow, sad death had a tremendous impact on her.
3. She has blue eyes and ash blonde hair, and wears a size 10 blouse and an 8 skirt. She likes to wear matching suits in dark colors.
4. She is licensed as both a doctor and a lawyer, with degrees from Cornell, Johns Hopkins and Georgetown. Since her family was not wealthy – and suffered financially after her father’s death – Kay either paid for all this education herself or qualified for grants and scholarships. I admire the tenacity and toughness this would have required.
5. Her car of choice is a Mercedes. She leases but doesn’t buy them.
6. Tony Benedetti was her only husband. They were married for 5 or 6 years and divorced before we even met Kay in Postmortem.
7. Kay is a terrific cook and makes many of her dishes completely from scratch – including the pasta. I love the juxtaposition – how easily and comfortably Kay moves between solving more than 100 murders and carefully rolling out dough in her custom-designed kitchen. Kay’s time in the kitchen has been such a big part of this series that Cornwell published a cookbook: Food to Die for: Secrets from Scarpetta’s Kitchen.
8. Kay loves good liquor – especially wine and scotch – and enjoys matching the perfect beverages with her meals. It’s part of her attention to detail, and illustrates her regard for her friends and guests. Kay is always gracious – no matter how harrowing the circumstances. (I do wish she had more of a sense of humor, though. Kay never seems to have many laughs.)
7. She used to be a heavy smoker. But she kicked the habit, and cut back on her coffee consumption, in 1993. She now seems to prefer decaf and tea.
8. She’s been a loving and dedicated surrogate mother to her niece, Lucy. Kay’s icky sister Dorothy is a much-married, highly successful children’s book author who ironically had no time for motherhood. Kay stepped into the breach and cared for the brilliant, turbulent Lucy. A former FBI agent and computer wizard, Lucy is a software mogul who made her first million before age 25. Lucy is a lesbian who has a hard time maintaining close relationships. (There’s ALWAYS chaos surrounding poor Lucy. I yearn to someday read a Scarpetta book where Lucy’s worst problem is a bad hair day.)
9. Poor Pete Marino has been in love with Kay from the start. A good and dedicated cop, he met Kay when he was a detective and she was the ME. Big, balding and divorced from his wife, Doris, Pete is a man of simple tastes (beer, cigarettes, motorcycles and fishing). Though he and Kay work brilliantly together, and she cares about and for him, there can never be romance between them and it is slowly breaking his heart.
10. Benton Wesley is her great love. He’s a handsome, patrician FBI profiler who has worked many cases with Kay. He is her match, her soulmate, in ways Marino never could be. I don’t especially like Benton and believe Kay could do better. He was married when he and Kay fell in love. That’s not the issue; it happens and I don’t judge. But the way Benton has completely walked away from his family (I know he has 3 children, at least 1 daughter) to be with Kay bothers me. I’m surprised it doesn’t bother Kay more, too, since she is so careful and loving with her niece and close friends. I had expected her to try very hard to establish a relationship with Benton’s children.
11. She is very tender with those she autopsies. I know that sounds weird, but it’s one of the things I like best about her. She doesn’t view what she does to the bodies in her morgue as cutting them up. Instead, she considers it “listening.” She wants to give them every opportunity to explain … to tell her through skin and bones and blood and tissue, what happened and how they ended up with her, and she is passionately concerned with getting them justice.
12. She loves to garden. While I don’t believe she’s ever owned a pet, she is very attached to the squirrels and birds who share her yard. I find it touching that she takes such pleasure in nature and life when she is surrounded by death and the unnatural all day. I really like that about my imaginary friend, Kay.
13. Her loyal secretary, Rose, has followed her everywhere. When Kay left Richmond for Florida, Rose went, too. When Kay left Florida for Charleston, so did Rose. Kay is very lucky to have Rose – a gray-haired, proper woman with impeccable manners who has managed over time to become as much a part of Scarpetta’s “family” as Lucy and Marino.
GAL’S SPECIAL NOTE TO SCARPETTA VIRGINS: If you’re ready to dive into the Scarpetta books, PLEASE read them in order. First of all, because if you don’t, some of the plot twists in later books will simply confound you. Also because, objectively speaking, the earlier books are the best. If you start with the more recent ones (especially Blow Fly – which I hated), you may be so disheartened and disgusted that you won’t want to stay with the series.
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