Southern Cross, Patricia Cornwell

Pocket, 1998, 382 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-17254-6

This is the first Patricia Cornwell book that I read, and as such, there are things that I do not know. I have been told, for instance, that Cornwell’s best work is the “Kay Scarpetta” series, but I have no way of affirming this for myself without reading her other books. I have seen references to a previous novel featuring the protagonists of Southern Cross, but can’t verify the assertion. I suppose that the Scarpetta novels are more serious fare, and that Southern Cross is a departure of sorts for the normally staid Cornwell.

But there is one thing I can say without need for comparisons with other Cornwell works and it’s that Southern Cross is just not a very good book. On this, I have no need to consult with Cornwell enthusiasts: Failure is obvious whatever the context. It’s not a complete disaster, mind you. It’s just that this novel is simply too dull to be liked.

A large part of this failure can be blamed on Southern Cross‘s chosen tone: The light, borderline-comic crime novel genre is well established (Hiassen, etc.) but isn’t a natural fit for every author. It takes more than characters with funny names, sprawling incompetence and amusing vignettes to sustain the interest of chuckle-deprived readers. A touch too much drama may sour the bouquet; a too-heavy hand on the tiller can make the whole thing crumble in trivialities. Sadly, Cornwell does both in this botched attempt to amuse readers.

Southern Cross takes place in Richmond, Virginia, a typical Southern city whose best years are unfortunately long gone. The tobacco industry is fast dying, poverty is rampant, racial problems can resurface at any time and natives aren’t keen on seeing g’darn Yankees try to impose their way. Unfortunately, that’s the perception when super-cop Judy Hammer comes in with her team to try to solve Richmond’s crime problem through computer analysis and better policing methods.

As a Canadian, I’m basically ignorant when it comes to the reality of the southern United States. Plenty of prejudice has made its way up north and Southern Cross doesn’t do much to correct them. Rednecks named “Bubba” may or may not exemplify the South, but one certainly star in Cornwell’s novel and while his portrait is eventually sympathetic, it’s not exactly flattering. The same goes for the incompetence, stupidity and stereotypes confronting Hammer’s team as they try to do their jobs. Hilarious interludes include a fight between a police officer and a dispatcher (the fun of which is carried over in the resolution and the aftermath), a governor who seems vastly more competent than anyone else and a black policeman slightly too sensitive to perceived racial slurs.

But those comic highlights are far and few. The rest of the novel seems mired in pointless sequences and interminable dialogues about trivialities. Worse; there is a highly dramatic subplot running through the novel involving the murder of a secondary character, a narrative thread that seems to belong in another book entirely. Technological details are, er, unconvincing. The resolution of the book means nothing, concentrates on subplots and may even suggests that the villains may go free for lack of proof. Overall, the tone is both scattered and forced, as Cornwell can’t focus her narrative to a cohesive plot and simply tries too hard to include “light” elements while forgetting to make them mean something.

There are fine character portraits and a few amusing moments in here, but they seem to belong in another novel. As it currently stands, Southern Cross is a mess that can’t support its own weight, a tedious read occasionally enlivened by flashes of interest. It certainly doesn’t make me curious about the rest of Cornwell’s oeuvre, even though I’ve been told that the rest is much, much better…

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