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Phoenixine Ninety-Eight, October 1997

It has been an odd month. I had a disturbing encounter with an aeroplane; the only books I have read have all been by the same author; I violated the laws of probability; and my cat's gone bald.

It all started when the Dominion sent me the new Patricia Cornwell novel for review. I'd never read any of her books before, though I'd seen her sprawling all over the thriller shelves and I had realised that she was a popular and prolific writer. I read the novel (Unnatural Exposure) in a sitting. It was so good that I simply didn't want to let go. When I finished it I realised that I wanted more and I wanted it now. Nothing else would do; no other writer could scratch my literary itch. So I immediately went out and bought every Patricia Cornwell book on the shelves which turned out to be all of them since they remain constantly in print.

Then I had to go to Wellington on business -- here was a heaven-sent opportunity to spend my evenings catching up on Patricia Cornwell. I decided to forego the usual social whirl that generally marks my visits to the capital, and I packed a suitcase full of Patricia Cornwell.

About half way to Wellington the pilot announced chirpily that the airport was closed because of the weather. Nothing had been able to land for the last hour or so and the visibility was getting worse.

"But we've got plenty of fuel," he said cheerfully, "so we'll circle a bit in case it clears up. If the worst happens, we might have to divert to Palmerston North."

We began our descent and the cloud cover rolled in, thicker and thicker, no sign of any airport, just solid mist. Then, with no warning at all, the engines roared out at full throttle and we shot up into the bright blue sky above the clouds again.

"Sorry about that," said the pilot. "It's still a bit thick on the ground. I think I'll try again; from the North this time, there might be better visibility. And anyway we are a four engine jet with lots of power. We can get MUCH closer to the ground before we have to abort than other types of planes can."

I could hear the "so there, yah boo sucks!" tone in his voice. Obviously other types of planes were for wimps -- real pilots flew British Aerospace Whisper Jets.

By this time I had begun to realise that we had an obsessive-compulsive in the driver's seat. His job description said that the plane had to land at Wellington and land at Wellington it damn well would! A little thing like the weather was not going to be allowed to interfere with the proper running of the universe.

Besides, the crew were all Wellington based (they had told us that on take off) and doubtless they wanted to get home. Diverting to Palmerston North was not in their plans. It would spoil their day. They'd miss their favourite show on the TV.

The plane droned on, obviously lining up for an approach from the North (we'd come in from the South last time, across the strait). Then we began our descent again and the view outside the window became solid, thick and grey once more.

The pressure in my eardrums told me that we were going down and down, but still there was no break in the clouds, no sign of any land at all, just solid unending grey.

Then suddenly the ground appeared, almost immediately beneath our wingtips -- we were so low I'll swear I could have jumped out and run alongside the plane! I could almost count the blades of grass bordering the runway. We swooped in and touched down to a perfect landing within seconds of the ground appearing. Everybody applauded wildly.

"Welcome to Wellington," said the cabin chief drily. "I bet the competition couldn't have done that."

As I collected my luggage, the clouds continued to roll in and obscure the view. We were the only aircraft to land that afternoon -- nobody else was mad enough to try and get through such thick low cloud.

The taxi driver expressed surprise when I opened the door of his cab.

"Has something landed?" he asked, bewildered.

"Yes," I said. "The pilot had to get home. He thought he might have left the gas on."

With one exception the Cornwell books concern themselves with the tribulations of one Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a forensic pathologist in Virginia. In a sense the plots are somewhat formulaic -- someone is done to death in a gruesome manner. Dr Scarpetta conducts a post mortem (we are spared no details here) and everyone agrees that the case is puzzling, odd and bizarre. Further horrible things happen, Kay's family and friends become involved, a culprit is identified and a satisfying conclusion is reached. If that was all there was to them, the books would quickly become repetitively dull.

Fortunately there is much more. There is the obvious attractiveness of the secrets of the post mortem -- Cornwell herself has worked in a pathology laboratory and she pulls no punches with the gory details. The icky bits are magnificently evoked; don't read these books while eating your tea.

The character development is also first rate -- the people leap off the page, perfectly realised, their faults and foibles searingly exposed under Cornwell's searchlight prose. Furthermore they change and grow as their experiences mould them, and these changes are faithfully reflected as book follows book.

And the stories themselves are satisfyingly complex, no formulaic thud and blunder here, just taut, well-observed action that is sometimes quite emotionally wrenching.

So there I was, all alone in Wellington, indulging in Patricia Cornwell, when I met a man called Andrew Mason.

Now as it happens, I already know a man called Andrew Mason, and he knows me. I would imagine that every so often he tells new acquaintances, "Hey, I know a man called Alan Robson", and they probably nod knowingly and agree that this is indeed a privilege.

Anyway, the Andrew Mason I met was not the Andrew Mason I know. It was a completely different Andrew Mason (still with me? Good). During the course of conversation with this new Andrew Mason, I was quite stunned to discover that he was well acquainted with a man called Alan Robson who is not me, but is someone else entirely.

It gives me statistical shivers to realise that in New Zealand there exist two Andrew Masons, neither of whom knows the other and each of whom knows an Alan Robson. And furthermore, the two Alan Robsons have never met each other either! Take that, Gods of Probability!

A constant theme in the Patricia Cornwell books concerns the progressive computerisation of the various arms of the police force, both on the front line and behind the scenes. We see ever more elaborate computer systems as the series progresses, with ever more exciting developments pushing the edge of the envelope. Again, to an extent, she is using her own background here. For a time, according to the blurb biographies, Cornwell herself worked as a computer analyst in the chief medical examiner's office in Virginia. There is no doubt that she is well acquainted with computer technology. Her descriptions of what computers can do and the things you see on the screen while they are doing them are invariably accurate and incisive. However the technogibberish she uses to describe just how the computers perform their routine miracles is such complete and utter nonsense that either she is deliberately dumbing down for her audience, or else she has no proper understanding of the technology she used for so long in real life (maybe that's why she started writing novels).

In some ways this is a very small nit to pick. Few except the specialists, nerds and geeks among us will ever notice her errors. The majority of readers will doubtless be impressed with yet more evidence of her technical expertise. But therein lies the flaw. If her research and experience in this area let her down so badly, it is tempting to ask just how much reliance one can place on her expertise and research into other areas; most notably the medical evidence on which so many vital plot threads hang. I found the medical information convincing and absorbing, but I am strictly a layman here. Would a real pathologist be as convinced? The seeds of doubt have been sown, so perhaps the nit is not so tiny after all.

On the other hand the books are novels, not text books. I do not read them to learn about the inner workings of a computer's plumbing (or the inner workings of a person's plumbing for that matter). I read them for entertainment and grue and on that level they succeed magnificently; hence their enormous popularity and hence Patricia Cornwell's correspondingly enormous riches. There is no doubt that she has tapped a popular vein. So to speak.

I came home to discover that my ginger cat (called, with complete lack of imagination, Ginger) had a lump. It was so large that she looked distinctly lop-sided and while it appeared to be affording her no discomfort, a visit to the vet was obviously called for. Much to her disgust she was bundled into a cage and off we went.

"Looks like an abscess," opined the vet after poking around. "I'll just see what's inside it." She stuck a syringe into the lump and pulled on the plunger. The syringe filled up with a custardy liquid. "Yes," said the vet in tones of deep diagnostic satisfaction, "full of pus. Definitely an abscess. We'll have to drain it. Come back in an hour or so."

I filled the next hour by wandering around the bookshop in the shopping mall across the road. I didn't buy anything because there were no new Patricia Cornwell books to be had. She hadn't written anything in the last week. Pity that.

When I reappeared at the vets I was shocked to find that Ginger had been shaved all down her left side and she had two holes at the top and bottom of the abscess. A plastic strip poked coyly out of each, connecting them together, and it was secured in place with a couple of rough stitches; the idea being to keep the wound open and let it drain. "Bring her back next Wednesday," instructed the vet, "so we can remove the stitches and the drain."

I took her home. She dripped unmentionable fluids.

The next day being Sunday with the vet presumably enjoying a well-deserved day of rest, Ginger decided to pull the drain out. She succeeded in rupturing the stitches and bit off the top of the protruding plastic. What had once been a neat little oozing hole became a gaping wound that flowed with foulness. There was nothing for it -- we had to visit the emergency, after-hours, hideously expensive vet. I packed a couple of credit cards and off we went.

The vet took his glasses off, the better to peer at the wound. "Draining nicely," he observed, and took Ginger into the back room. When he emerged again a few minutes later the wound was nicely stitched and Ginger was wearing an Elizabethan collar -- a large plastic ruff around the neck. "That'll stop her getting at the wound again," he said smugly. "Keep her indoors until Wednesday. Probably best to keep her in the cage."

This was duly done, though it was not without incident. The Elizabethan collar had to come off for meals since not only could she not get at the wound while wearing it, she couldn't get at anything else either. I'll draw a veil lightly over her toilet arrangements. Suffice it to say that she didn't like them, and made her displeasure copiously plain.

Wednesday saw the stitches and drain successfully removed. The holes soon scabbed over and healed, but the fur on her naked side is taking forever to grow back. Currently she sports a light coating of uneven fluff and looks remarkably silly. Baldness does not suit cats. Mind you, neither do lumps.

I have one more Patricia Cornwell book to read. It is called Hornet's Nest. It is not about Kay Scarpetta -- indeed it has no connection at all with Cornwell's other books except for the trivial connection that it too is a thriller/police procedural. I am told by those who have read it that the style is quite different from the Kay Scarpetta stories. Other than that I cannot say, since I appear to have overdosed for the moment on Patricia Cornwell and Hornet's Nest is still sitting unattractively on my "to be read" shelf. In retrospect, eight books non-stop was probably a rather foolish reading marathon to set myself.

Patricia Cornwell  Post Mortem Warner Books
  Body of Evidence  
  All that Remains  
  Cruel and Unusual  
  The Body Farm  
  From Potter’s Field  Little, Brown
  Cause of Death  
  Unnatural Exposure  
  Hornet’s Nest  
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