Thursday, January 08, 2009

My Last Precinct

I usually turn my nose up to mass-market paperback fiction -- you know, the type advertised on subway cars. I got through about 8 pages of "The Da Vinci Code" before I put it down in disgust.

But I recently purchased a copy of "The Last Precinct," by Patricia Cornwell, for two reasons.

One, I felt I needed to bone up on my crime/mystery writing.

Second, because of this weird and very vivid dream I had.

It featured a copy of the Bible -- my Bible -- with the words "Patricia Cornwell" on it in gilt letters. A voice said, "this is your true story."

So I randomly chose a Cornwell paperback at the bookstore, and purchased it along with a book on FBI profiling and the basics of spycraft. (I'm pretty serious about adding more "meat" to my writing)

I am halfway finished with reading "The Last Precinct," and am hooked. But the book's subject matter -- or rather, the subject matter that keeps reappearing, reasserting itself in different permutations -- has struck a nerve.

The book opens with the aftermath of an attack on a woman's life. She survives, and actually got an opportunity to hurt her assailant. But the tables are turned on her and she becomes the criminal, the suspected. Her life gets turned upside down, whereas her attacker sits pretty (or ugly) in the jail, being fed junk food and soft drinks. She was the one who was attacked, yet she finds herself constantly on the defensive.

Underlying this is the fear of some male characters of strong women, giving some a motive to destroy the objects of their hate (whether physically with a hammer to the face, or career-wise).

One character says,

"Righter thinks you're a nut case, I hate to tell you. And I gotta add that he don't like you personally and never has because he's got the balls of a soprano and don't like powerful women."

The main character, Kay Scarpetta, is not the only female in the novel to face this sort of resistance and persecution. Her niece is in the process of being "run out" of the ATF -- for being both a woman and particularly a lesbian. And a similar thing has happened to her partner, Teun.

And sexual harassment -- even by "well meaning" male characters, also features prominently.

While the outward battlefield in "The Last Precinct" is played out in court rooms and medical examiner's offices, there is another battle -- that against high-achieving women in mostly male institutions.

The solution -- at least at this point in the story -- is to quit those institutions and create a new place. A place where women can work without the barriers, the suspicion, the hatred of who they are. The Last Precinct.

I'm at the part of the story where Kay -- suspected of a murder she didn't commit, slandered, betrayed -- tenders her resignation to the governor. It is a hard decision for her. But she's had enough.

"I have lost this city. I can't go back. I can blame it on Chandonne, but that isn't all of it, if I am honest with myself. It is time to do the harder thing. Change."


  1. There's mass-market paperbacks and there are mass-market paperbacks. Some authors are good. Some authors are bad.

    Haven't read any Cornwell, but have generally heard good things about her (unlike Dan Brown or Stephanie Meier). I did hear she fingers Sickert for Jack the Ripper, and I am more of a Gull man since reading From Hell.

    I read a some higher brow stuff, but I still think Stephen King has written some great stuff.

    I plan to read the Da Vinci code even though I know it is going to be crap, because I do like conspiracy books. If that was your initial motivation I would recommend Foucalt's Pendulum or the Illuminatus Trilogy. I also have The Eight by a woman whose name I forget, but I have not read it yet.

  2. My mom likes Patricia Cornwell books. So there's another endorsement, and I'm sure that means a lot to you.

    And when it comes to you in a dream attached to the Bible, how can you avoid it?

    My only encounter with the mass-market stuff came when I tried to read Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October because I'd somewhat enjoyed the movie version. I lasted about eight pages, too.

  3. Seems like the book deals with some interesting topics. I have had to deal with the same issue about being a female in a male dominated institution. All the females I know who are in my field have been harassed or assaulted at one point or another; but most of them are silent about it, because speaking up causes more trouble and resentment.

    I have managed to get through intact, but sometimes it is frustrating because coming up with a solution is difficult. However, leaving the institutions is not a good solution because, despite the difficulty, this is where the tide is flowing - women will be in these fields more and more.

    I recently overheard a conversation between two males complaining about how the rules have changed and females are now allowed in a certain job they weren't before. One of the guys was passionately against it. My first thought was - should I be angry? But then I realized that this is the way things are going. For anyone who has a problem with it, it is their time to cry - not mine.

    Every woman finds her own solution on how to deal with it - but I do wish there was some guide to help more females.

    Well, maybe I should have just spoke about the book itself, but these things strike a nerve with me as well.


  4. That's truly uncanny. And not the kind of uncanny that comes with adamantium claws, mind you. Hopefully some inspiration is brewing about how you'll apply what you're reading, because it seems very clear that something especially worthwhile will come out of this.

    I'm about halfway through Michael Crichton's Disclosure, which is all about gender roles and sexual harassment. Intellectually I've been aware of harassment and discrimination in the workplace for a while, but I never had any concept of what those are actually like until reading this book because it's a man who is harassed and discriminated against. The Last Precinct sounds like the gender-reversed version of Disclosure in some respects.

    I suppose it's the case that some organizations and institutions can't realistically be reformed by working within the system. It's like trying to shovel snow off of your entire car from inside the car.

    As for The Da Vinci Code, was it disgust for the content or the writing style (or did the book just smell really funny)?

    I only read it so I could keep up with all these conversations people around me kept having, but from a literary perspective I was kinda repulsed by the author's forced cliffhangers at the end of every chapter, and also from the intangible sense that certain elements were added specifically to cause a stir that would attract folks like myself to read a book they otherwise wouldn't bother with.

  5. I read your column and often find myself hating my gender for all of these evils that we propagate against our sisters. I know I live in a world where that happens and even works of fiction come from a place of truth. I always believed that a healthy fear of women like in the Dune books was good for men. (In my family all the women are lionesses and all the men are mice) We have always known you have the superpowers. I just am waiting for the time when you take over and set things right. Women on Top should be your manifesto. I can't watch it all go wrong again. Tell me the Last Precinct has space for a houseboy.

  6. Anonymous2:53 AM

    I bought The Hunt for Saddam at an APO in Hawaii.

    I'm not one for military novels.

  7. I've been tearing though entries in the Mack Bolan series of pulp action thrillers. They're crap -- wonderful, guilty pleasure direct-to-video-action-movie crap -- but so far not one has been as remotely bad or ineptly written as The Da Vinci Code. Really.

    Actually the best of the Bolan authors, a guy named Chuck Rogers, does some pretty cool, clever, and batshit insane things within the confines of these throwaway pulp stories.

    The fact that any of those jobbing writers can come up with something new and entertaining to do with this character after hundreds of books -- to me that demonstrates tons more creativity and writerly know-how than your garden variety Dan Brown will ever have.

    Anyway, Bolan is very much an acquired taste but some stuff in the thrillery popular paperback genre I'd recommend unreservedly are the Matthew Scudder books by Lawrence Block, anything by the late Donald E. Westlake, and the 87th Precinct series. A few of those have a real-world supervillain in them, The Deaf Man, who uses intricate Riddler-like puzzles to distract the working-stiff cops who star in the books.

  8. The Last Precinct wasn't my favorite. Towards the last few books of this series Kay Scarpetta became a victim a little too much for my liking. It was too convenient and less fun than the first few books, in my opinion. The author first held a lot of appeal to me because of her intense research into the character's job and location that she did beforehand. It seems like every new book since TLP she has a new job in a new city and it's hard to stay invested in anything but her romance.

    I would really recommend reading the series in order. There's a very surprising twist in the book immediately after TFP that won't mean nearly as much if you don't read Point of Origin first. Overall I think Kay, Marino & Lucy have a lot more depth if you see the events leading up to the one you read.

  9. Anonymous9:32 AM

    Portrait of a Serial Killer (the one in which she fingers Sickert as Jack the Ripper) is a piece of crock - based on hear-say instead of well-established biographical facts, forensically shaky.

    Most of all the book is based on the premise: "Sickert made lots of paintings of scenes of crime. He had a fascination with it, so he MUST have done it" - by this reasoning we could finger Cornwell for some unsolved serial killer's work...

  10. Sounds like a good read.

    Reminds me a little bit of Cable's Providence (Cable & Deadpool). The book suggests that the way to fix society is to create a new one that embodies the best of our ideals and show the rest of the world that such things are possible.

  11. Couldn't get into Cornwell. Read Hornet's Nest, and it just didn't strike a chord for me. Have to say I'm not a huge mystery buff, so that could be why.

    I seem to remember the book aggravating me in the way she depicted men in general, but I can't say what it was, specifically, that ticked me off. This was more than a decade ago that I read it.

    Could be any number of stars aligning for that, though. Could be that book only, or I could have had a particularly bad month when I read it. Didn't feel obligated to read more, though. Mystery's generally not my bag.

  12. There is a great interview with Patricia Cornwell on the Bat Segundo show -

    Cornwell talks about how her character had come about.

  13. I read the first 4 or 5 Kay Scarpeta books. I think Cornwell is a pretty good writer, but after a while the books got to preachy for me. It was kind of like "I get it, you're gay. can we get back to the murder mystery?" I guess that's why I'm more of a Law and Order kinda guy than I am a House guy. Just give me the facts and the crime, I can do without all the personal nonsense.

  14. It's strange to think that there are these whole worlds about which I have no direct knowledge (in this case because I'm not really involved in any institutions).

    One would hope that, at this point in time, all institiutions are meritocracies -- that the best minds rise, regardless of race, religions, politics, or sex. Guess we still have a ways to go...

  15. Patricia Cornwell is one of my fav writers. I read both Portrait of a Serial Killer and Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code the in the same cold winter season. It was strange, Cornwell's was non-fiction, a portrait of a real maniac who hated woman, and Brown's fiction about uncovering a concept that would shake the religious sector to it's knees in regards to the female importance in life. I found them both fascinating.

    Why didn't you like the Da Vinci Code? I'm curious. I thought it was an important book. I can see however, that the controversy helped to market the book and that was a bit of a turn off and the movie completely sucked.

    They should have made a movie of Cornwell's Jack the Ripper, Portrait of a Serial Killer".

  16. I enjoyed Patricia Cornwell's earlier books, but by LAST PRECINCT, I was near the end of my ride with her. What started out as some tightly-woven mysteries with an intriguing cast of characters had devolved into a melodrama where the mystery was more of a secondary element.

    You mention some of the women's issues she tackles in her books, and while they were fresh and well-handled in her earlier books, they had reached a point in the series where I was just bored with them. That's a pity, because I was a big fan of those early books. Scarpetta's niece also turned into a dreadful character in the books, because I just couldn't find her credible anymore.

    All that said, I'm glad you are enjoying it. Some books just don't work everyone. The book after this one, BLOWFLY, was the last Patricia Cornwell I've read. That book was just so poorly written, I was tempted to throw the book across the room.