Friday, April 02, 2004

Here I am, fresh from the delightfully cultured pleasures of BBC Newsnight Review. I do love review programmes like this. Tonight, our panellists discussing the latest highlights in the world of British culture were poet and critic Tom Paulin, and two of crime fiction's heaviest heavy-weights, Ian Rankin and P.D. James. First up for discussion was Oscar-winner Monster. (It says much about the state of British cinema that this film, which of course won Charlize Theron her Best Actress Oscar almost a month ago, and has been on release in the US for a good while, has only just opened on our shores today.) The basic thrust of their discussion was that it was worth watching for the performances of Ricci and Theron, but the actual structure was slightly lacking.

James said that Theron's performance was a "tour de force", but that the central love story "didn't really work". She also said that she felt "I should have felt more sorry for her [Aileen Wuornos] than I was able to, so in that sense it failed." Paulin compared it to a "feminist version of that great Mailer novel The Executioner's Song", which I thought was a bit of a striking comparison. Rankin said of it: "brilliant performances in a film that isn't in itself brilliant. Certainly, it was a very difficult to watch." This is a film I've been itching to see for quite a while, and I don't think I've really been swayed one way or the other by these comments.

Anyway, I must get onto what I had intended to talk about. I want to discuss blow flies. Well, just one, actually: Patricia Cornwell's most recent Kay Scarpetta novel, which I am finding a most incredibly curious phenomenon. Sometimes, I have been rather shocked by some of the seeming malice which is directed at Cornwell, and I have rallied to her defence with spectacularly reckless abandon on occasion, once or twice leaving behind all my common sense and reason. Blow Fly in particular caused many spewings of disappointment from almost all corners. What I find most notable, though, is that there are actually one or two rather impressive reviews out there for it. The Connecticut Post said that "Patricia Cornwell is on target - and spectacularly so - with her latest Kay Scarpetta thriller". Antonia Fraser, in her review in The Sunday Telegraph, said it was a "tremendous read", if a trifle morally ambiguous, which was certainly true. The reviewer at Shots, who was a Scarpetta virgin, was also pretty impressed (with all except the gore) and said that the final pages were "really first-rate," despite the fact that the ending was the greatest point of contention for loyal readers.

In an article in The Spectator (registration required), Olivia Glazebrook (who, as is clear from the tone of the review, doesn't often lower herself to reading much crime-fiction, certainly not by Patricia Cornwell, thank you very much) seemed to like Blow Fly best of the three she took a look at - if "like" is quite the right word. I have also read several other reviews smattered over the internet, and I have noticed one uniting factor: most (not all) of the reviewers, like Ms Glazebrook, were experiencing Scarpetta and Patricia Cornwell for the first time. Indeed, I've heard of several people who read Blow Fly and became converts to the series. So, is it honestly as bad as lots of readers say? Is it so that only those who have never read the series before, who have no knowledge of the preceding books, can appreciate it? Surely not? Why should this be?

Maybe Blow Fly is mostly fine in itself, and it is just that the first books were so very good that anything less than excellence, or anything vaguely different, is going to be disappointing for longstanding fans. Personally, I'm of the opinion that Cornwell has written herself into a corner in terms of what her readers want, and whichever way she tries to get out will involve walking over a bed of nails. Whatever she does, readers will be disappointed. Partly because they now have disappointment conditioned in them, and I'm pretty sure that any move she makes to extricate Scarpetta from her current situation, any move she makes to move her on (which I actually think she did pretty bravely and successfully,) will be unsatisfying. For a while, at least. I can't pretend to know why this is. Indeed, I can't pretend to know much, but I try. It is clear that fans want a return to the Scarpetta of old, but this just simply isn't possible: Scarpetta has changed; I think, in a very realistic way - no doubt exposure to such events would change a person drastically - and she ain't going back.

To be honest, I think Cornwell has got around the inherent problem of "series longevity" quite well, except very few people agree with me. But there is little doubt that she has kept Scarpetta fresh and interesting and new, I think. She has refused to let her remain static, and that is admirable. There is no way Cornwell could fit her character back into the mould of the lady we met in Postmortem. It just isn't possible, and Cornwell wouldn't dare to try. So, what routes are left open to her? For a start, she could remove that annoying habit she has acquired of tying up her subplots with coincidences. She should also move on from this ridiculous obsession she has with the Chandonne family, the legacy of which is bound to continue into the next book now that Jean-Baptiste is on the loose. Other than that, there isn't actually much wrong with any of her books, as I can see (indeed, the prose itself in Blow Fly was quite remarkable, if a little exhausting!) Maybe this is what those reviewers can see as well. I think that if she can settle the series down again, maybe she has a chance of re-converting those disheartened readers. But what of Scarpetta herself? Where will Scarpetta stand with the readers? As I say, she has changed. And the only way she won't disappoint readers is if Cornwell brings her back bigger and better than before, which, considering how good she was in the first place, is a very tall order indeed.

(Heavens, that was lengthy!)