Last week I broke a promise to myself. It was a promise made in rage and disappointment some months ago. It was the kind of promise you make about ending a relationship that’s bad for you. And I stuck with it for a good while. But then, it happened.
I bought another Patricia Cornwell book.
In my defence, it’s because the hard cover of The Scarpetta Factor was $12.95 and I figured a disappointment for $12.95 would be far less enraging than the past few Cornwell-related disappointments I’ve had, which have been around the $40 mark.
I’ve been trying to work out why I’ve started to dislike the series so much. One reason is that there’s less action – the books have become so full of “tell” that I feel like I’m reading a forensic report. An especially dry forensic report. Important characters are disposed of off-screen and it feels like the hard-to-write scene is simply being avoided (i.e. Jay Talley in Blowfly – funnily enough, the first novel to shift to third-person), and in the latest one, Talley’s twin, Jean-Baptiste Chandonne, appears late in the piece and is barely more than a nasty cardboard cutout.
Another reason is that the main characters are consistently stuck in the same dysfunctions they’ve been displaying all the way through the series – whereas in early books you could see a progression of personal problems for each character that moved the story along. Lucy was a brilliant brat in the beginning; she progressed to being a brilliant abrasive young woman, unable to maintain relationships; for the last five or so books she’s been stuck in the same cycle of self-destructive behaviour. Scarpetta’s relationship with her is constantly fraught because of Lucy’s refusal to talk to her aunt. Scarpetta resents her husband Benton for the time when he was ‘disappeared’ from her life. Pete Marino still has a huge and unhealthy crush on Scarpetta, which causes all his other relationships to founder because no other woman can hold a candle to the Doc.
Sure, verisimilitude is excellent in a novel, it makes things seem real, gives a reader some kind of engagement in something they can relate to … however, characters – especially characters in long running series – need to change and progress and learn. A reader wants to go on a journey with them. A novel isn’t real life – it just needs to seem like it. Real life is boring. Go ahead, try it: describe every single thing you did today – you’ll bore yourself senseless within two minutes. Similarly, with characters, they should be recognisable in some way, shape or form – you should be able to see something of people you know in the characters you read about. It helps you to relate to them and sure we all know people who wilfully stay in their own ruts and don’t even try to change. But you don’t necessarily continue to hang around with them – people like that are boring to know. Their dramas are the same and constant.
In the later Scarpetta novels, Lucy doesn’t struggle with her flaws. She doesn’t try to change. Scarpetta closes her eyes over and over again to the same problems with her niece and Marino and Benton. She never learns either. It’s hard to sympathise with the wilfully blind.
I realise that one of the reasons I read is in order to hope. If I’m reading about people who are never changing, then they drain my sympathy pretty quickly. I don’t want to waste my time on them. I like to see a chance of redemption.
Conversely, look at John Connolly’s Charlie Parker novels – there is character change and shift. Sure, Parker has his continuing issues, but one of the successes of the novels is that he struggles against them and, although not becoming in any way perfect, he shifts as a human being, he changes. He doesn’t just wallow in his own personality flaws – he tries to change, to be better, and this is what makes him engaging.
The more I think about why the Scarpetta novels no longer engage me, the more I start to think it has a lot to do with this: Cornwell hasn’t written Scarpetta in first-person for a long time. First-person narratives help to engage the reader, being in the protagonist’s head hardwires you to their feelings and thoughts, their joys and their grief. It’s why first-person shooter is so popular for games: in a lot of ways you are the main character.
Sure it’s not the only way to engage a reader. Good third-person narration can be just as effective – but if your characters don’t change or shift, if they are constantly lacking in self-awareness, if they make the same mistakes over and over, then as a writer, you’ve lost your ability to move your reader. Scarpetta has lost the advantage of the first-person shooter.
Just my opinion, for what it’s worth.