Book Review: Patricia Cornwell – Unnatural Exposure

A while back, when I was travelling around in south east Asia, I ran out of books to read, so I went to a nearby second hand bookstore aimed at tourists to see what I could find. Of the few classics that they had on hand I had already read everything I was interested in so I turned to their large section of crime drama; apparently, most people read crime drama when travelling because they had loads of it. I’ve never been a fan of the genre but I figured I might as well give it a try, however, I had basically no idea what to choose. While browsing the shelves I started seeing a few names that I at least recognized, and since I tend to read mostly male authors (a by product of reading classics I guess), I figured I should aim for something written by a woman; my choice fell on Patricia Cornwell’s Unnatural Exposure.  It only took me a few pages before I started wondering how this could be a New York Times bestseller. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the masterful craftsmanship of the likes of Georges Perec and Jane Austen but I found Cornwell’s writing to be almost unreadable. In fact, it was so bad that instead of leaving the book in some hostel like I had originally planned, I lugged it back home just so I could write this review.

Actually, this is no so much a review as it is an exposé on those parts of her writing that bothered me. The story itself is a rather bland crime drama about a medical examiner trying to hunt down a serial killer. In my opinion it’s pretty forgettable but for what it is, I guess it’s fine – crime drama just isn’t my cup of tea; though I can hardly blame Cornwell for that. Think of it like a Steven Seagal movie, it’s an OK way to kill some time but not more that. What really bothered me about the book was what I like to call Patricia Cornwell’s grammatical shenanigans.  It’s like she is allergic to the words “a” and “the” because she kept skipping them; and every time she did it felt like my inner voice stumbled on the strange sentence structure. The effect is really jarring and it takes you out of out of the story for a few moments. Not only that, Cornwell doesn’t seem to like similes either, she’s always using metaphors, and when that is combined with the lack of determiners, the meaning of  the sentences becomes really unclear.

Instead of trying to explain to you what I mean, let me show you with a couple of examples:

“Flat-bed refuse trucks were sleek and white with polished chrome, crawling along the summit of a growing mountain of trash . Yellow Caterpillars were striking scorpions.”

Especially the second sentence gets me; in my head I see a caterpillar (the bug, not the machine) hitting a scorpion in the face, which has nothing to do with the flat-bed trucks in the previous sentence. What I think she means is that the caterpillars (the machines, not bugs) look like giant scorpions but it took me a couple of passes to figure that out.

“Soon grain elevators Grigg had told me to look for came into view.”

The first time I read this, the lack of “the” in front of “grain elevators” made me think she was talking about a person called Grain Elevators Grigg. Not only is that a strange name but it messes up the structure of the remainder of the sentence.

“After he drove home, I carried wine throughout my house, pacing, wandering with music on and flowing out speakers in every room”

I suspect what she means to say here is something along the lines of: “I paced through the house, a glass of wine in hand, thinking about the things he said.” However, to me it comes off like she was up in the middle of the night, carrying barrels of wine through her house, perhaps even placing them in every room.

“Thumbs were small and pale like old parchment.”

“Parking lots were well lit and full of cars”

“Corridors were monochromatic and seemed endless”

“walls were the color of putty”

“corridors were catwalks with grated floors”

“Fields were fallow with tufts of cotton still clinging to dead stalks,”

“Inmates were young and hard in institutional denim,”

“Inmates were sullen this time”

“Walls were concrete, the private told us”

These are all rather minor but it  shows how common it is. The lack of determiners makes it sound like Cornwell is talking in more general terms than she really is.

“and geese were black V’s flying overhead.”

To me this sounds like each goose is actually shaped like a V, and not just several geese flying in a V formation.

Cornwell also has a tendency to write a kind of run on sentences where unrelated clauses are interconnected. I think she does it to indicate things happening simultaneously but the way she writes makes it seem like there is causality between events where there should be none. Again, I think some examples will better describe what I mean:

“I did not answer him, but my silence was loud as I sat in my chair.”

Her silence being loud has nothing to do with her sitting in the chair, so why are they in the same sentence?

“He dissolved in tears as doors opened and several state troopers walked in.”

The state troopers walking in have nothing to do with the man dissolving in tears but to me it seems there is a connection.

” ‘It suits me fine if you stick with robots,’ I said, and we were in the kitchen now.”

I know they are speaking while they walk to the kitchen but it kind of comes off like they are teleported there.

“They moved about in their crab shanties and worked on their nets as we docked near fuel pumps”

The people working on their nets have nothing to do with the boat docking at the fuel fuel pumps (another missing determiner by the way) but that’s not how it’s written. In my opinion a better way to get the message across would be to write something like “I looked out the window as we were docking near some fuel pumps, and I could see the fishermen moving about in their crab shanties and working on their nets.

“The colonel did not appear before lunch, which was a broiled chicken breast, carrots and rice.”

When I read this I thought for a moment that the colonel was a broiled chicken breast, then I realized it’s just another run on sentence.

” ‘That’s what I’m here to find out,’ I said, and we were in the atrium now.”

Another example people teleporting while having a conversation

Aside from those there are other cases where Cornwell’s grammar or choice of words make strange sounding sentences, here are a couple of examples:

“I switched on lamps, and the Shelbourne Hotel was suddenly around me.”

Wait, the hotel materialized around her when she witched on the light? How does that work?

“Kitchen was simple in jeans and Timberland boots”

Kitchen is a person but without any title that is really hard to tell, so I kept imagining a kitchen made from jeans and boots.

“Then we went into the kitchen and sat at a cozy table by an expansive window overlooking my wooded yard and the river”

This is her own house but she describes it in such an impersonal way, like her kitchen is a restaurant or something.

“I […] tucked the box of slides more snugly under an arm”

Whose arm is she tucking it under?

Apart from the grammatical shenanigans, there are several other parts of Cornwell’s writing that bother me. For one there are several occasions where she provides unnecessary or superfluous information.

“I stopped at Amoco first and pumped my own [gas], then was on my way”

Her pumping gas adds absolutely nothing to the story

“I plugged the computer into the telephone jack, and pushed a button to turn it on”

We know how computers work, you don’t need to describe how to turn it on.

“I found him at the Virginia Diner, where he was sitting at the local table, which literally was where the locals gathered.”

That the locals sit at the local table is kind of implied by the name “local table”.

“So I went out to my car, only to have to turn around ten minutes later because I’d left my checkbook on the table.”

Again, this adds nothing what so ever to the story, it’s just a waste of paper.

“Lucy and I went into the women’s changing room while Gallwey went into the men’s.”

Wait the women go to the women’s changing room and the men to the men’s? What a strange concept, I never heard of such a thing.

” ‘Aunt Kay, what will happen to me?’ […] The twisted path that had led her to Carrie eventually bent us back to Lucy’s mother, who, of course, was my sister.”

Yes, if Lucy calls you Aunt, her mother being your sister should be pretty obvious.

For two, she has plenty of expression that are grammatically fine but still sound very strange to me:

“We put on jackets and sat out on the deck drinking wine while Lucy cooked.”

There are only two people in this scene, “I” and Lucy, so I wonder, how can Lucy sit on the deck drinking wine and cook at the same time?

“Since it seemed that one could not fly direct from Richmond to anywhere except Charlotte, we were routed to Cincinnati first, where we changed planes.”

So you cannot fly direct to anywhere except Charlotte, so they fly to Cincinnati? There’s a staggering lack of logic in that sentence

“Unless you’re one hundred percent damn sure of yourself”

You normally say either hundred percent sure, or damn sure, putting them together just sounds ridiculous.

“I moved my index finger, made clicking motions , brought my thumb near my palm and moved my arm across my chest as I broke out in a sweat.”

I’m not sure what this is supposed to describe but it’s a pretty weird sequence of movements.

“Inside were three freezers unlike any normally seen”

They are industrial freezers but Cornwell makes it sound like they are strange pieces of alien technology

“We began to take off a mere thirty amazing minutes after the plane had landed.”

I think she is trying to say that it’s amazing that the plane can take off again so shortly after landing but it sounds more like she had and amazing time during those thirty minutes.

” ‘Brighton is a rather odd place to be in February,’ […] Why would someone be coming from a seaside resort that time of year?’ “

The reason someone would come from Brighton in February is because Brighton is an actual city where people live and work. Those people sometimes go to other places, even in February.

For three, there are a couple of plot holes and places where she focuses her writing on the wrong thing, the two most  glaring examples are the following:

She spends a whole paragraph an interaction with a  receptionist:

 “Excuse me,” I said, “ I’m here to see Keith Pleasants.” “Are you on his guest list?” Her contact lenses made her squint, and she wore pink braces on her teeth. […] She flipped pages in a loose-leaf binder, stopping when she got to the right one. […] “Here you are.” She got up from her chair. “Come with me.”

Then, a few pages later, she summarizes a whole series of events in just a few paragraphs:

“Before I got up the next morning, the World Health Organization put out another international alert about Vita aromatic facial spray. […] The virus, dubbed by the press Mutantpox, was on the cover of Newsweek and Time, and the Senate was forming a subcommittee as the White House contemplated emergency measures. […] Although there were yet no reports of the disease in France, economic and diplomatic relations were strained […] Watermen were trying to flee Tangier in their fishing vessels, and the Coast Guard had called in more backups […] Meanwhile, CDC had deployed an isolation team of doctors and nurses to Wingo’s house”

It’s like Cornwell thinks the interaction with the receptionist is of greater importance than this long list of potentially world changing events. Technically there’s nothing wrong with it but if I was writing this book I would skip the receptionist all together and spend more time on describing the other events in more detail.

Later in the book, the protagonist and friends are going to a camp site and we get this description:

“The trip to Janes Island State Park but less than an hour, but complicated by the fact that the campground was densely wooded with pines. There was Nowhere to land”

Because of this, they switch from helicopters to boats; so far, so good.  However, a few pages later this happens:

“Wing flaps were up, engines in thrust reverse as the jet screamed to a stop at the end of a field not big enough for football”

So there is a field near the campsite that is big enough to land a jet but they couldn’t go there by helicopter? I’m sorry I don’t buy it, I’d say that is a plot hole.

Lastly, this particular book came out in 1997 when the internet was still a new thing. Because of that the book is filled references to 90’s technology and while none of it is actually wrong, it makes the book feel laughably dated. I’ll include a few of them here, though note that this is not a criticism of Patricia Cornwell:

” ‘Let’s talk about your AOL profile.’ ”

” ‘There’s nothing in it but my professional title, my office phone number and address,’ I said. ‘I never entered personal details, such as marital status, date of birth, hobbies et cetera. I have more sense than that.’ “

She didn’t put personal details except phone number and address? That’s pretty personal by modern standards

“In cyberspace, on the World Wide Web, you’re both the same person with two different screen names.”

“how the two files were sent via America Online to Dr. Scarpetta’s e-mail address.”

“System requirements: Minimum of eight megs RAM, a color monitor, software like FotoTouch or ScanMan, a modem.”

“photos sent as files through the World Wide Web”

” ‘We’re working on your files, trying to trace them through AOL and UNIX’ ”

“I logged onto AOL and went back to the chat room […] There was truly something for everyone […] People who preferred bondage, sadomasochism, group sex, bestiality, incest, were welcome to find each other and exchange pornographic art. The FBI could do nothing about it. All of it was legal.”

Oh yes, the early days of the internet when everything was legal. Also, where people really that prude in the late 90’s that they would want to make kinky porn illegal?

Well, those are some of the things that bothered me about the book, I couldn’t put them all down here without making this post book length. However, you can get a feel for how much it was looking at the below picture which shows the book after I had gone through it making notes for this review.  

In conclusion then, this is not a well written book, and while Patricia Cornwell has written plenty of other things, I don’t think I will be reading any of them. Maybe they are better written but I’m not going to risk wasting any more of my time. The next time I run out of books when travelling, I’ll try Tom Clancy instead.

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