The women die on Saturday mornings. They die horrifically and seemingly randomly. They are brutalised and strangled in their bedrooms by an intruder. This is all that is known. This is how they die.
When newly installed Dr Kay Scarpetta, Chief Medical Examiner of Richmond, Virginia, gets a call at just after half past two in on Saturday morning, she knows even before she answers the phone that a fourth woman has died. Though deeply distressed at the actions of this latest devious, unfathomable serial killer, all Scarpetta herself can do for the victims is to let them speak through her to help catch he who is responsible. Diligently she performs her morbid task, investigating the bodies of the fatally wronged, even though not all are pleased that she occupies this job.
There's little doubt that this is one of the most successful debut novels of all time, winning a plethora of awards upon its release and still drawing people into the series even today, and I am sure it will continue to do so. It deserves too, as well. Post-mortem is a cunning, powerful, emotional and clever debut from a woman who is now the most successful (not to mention wealthy!) female crime writer in the world. With this book Cornwell pretty much created an entire new genre, and blew out the gates for a new generation of writers to follow her through. None of them are quite as good, though. None have ever matched the quality or the fascination of the so-well-described forensic detail, none have ever managed to create a more interesting and complete character than Scarpetta, who still develops to this day, thanks to Cornwell's ability to keep her series growing in different directions. They haven't always been universally popular directions, changes, but I feel they must be commended just for the fact that Cornwell has refused to write carbon-copies of this first book all through her career. God knows, she could have done, but I'm sure that lots of readers would by now be sick of them.
The plotting here is slick and easy, the personal contexts and conflicts nudge the quality even higher, and the writing has autumnal grace in it. She can also find the stark bleak poetry of a dead body.
There's no doubt that Cornwell has found her unique place in the crime fiction Hall of Fame, as has Scarpetta, the most fascinating and complex female protagonist in the entire genre. Currently, it is very much in vogue to criticise Cornwell, and from what I can see this is almost solely because the most recent novels - Scarpetta or otherwise - are just different. But, whatever you think of them, Post-mortem is a brilliant forensic thriller, and it always will be.