Across the Page: Patricia Cornwell’s “Red Mist,” plus reviews of books by Bett Norris and Marilyn Hacker


This month’s column features two new releases and revisits a collection of poetry: Patricia Cornwell’s latest addition to the Scarpetta series, Red Mist; Bett Norris’ debut follow-up, What’s Best for Jane; and Marilyn Hacker’s Winter Numbers.

Red Mist by Patricia Cornwell (Putnam)

The latest edition to best selling author Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta mystery series, Red Mist, is a follow-up to her previous book Port Mortuary. Once again featuring chief medical examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Red Mist opens with Scarpetta visiting a women’s prison in Savannah, Georgia, to meet with Kathleen Lawler.

Lawler is currently locked up for DUI manslaughter, but before that she served time for sexually molesting a boy named Jack Fielding — Scarpetta’s former deputy chief medical examiner who was killed six months earlier by Dawn Kincaid, the “love child” that he and Lawler conceived.  Kincaid was also imprisoned for trying to kill Scarpetta. As Scarpetta says, “It’s a long story.”

Lawler is an interesting and layered character — “[her] catastrophic tale is a perfect example of what scientists mean when they say that the beat of a butterfly wing causes a hurricane on another part of the planet.” But Scarpetta isn’t visiting with Lawler as the director of the Cambridge Forensic Center — “I will be Kay this day, and the only thing Kay and Kathleen have in common is Jack.”

Scarpetta is motivated by her loyalty to Fielding and because she believes that his death may be connected to the murder of a Savannah family and a recent series of suicides at the women’s prison. Scarpetta’s husband, FBI criminal intelligence agent Benton Wesley, doesn’t think that she should visit with Lawler — but as Scarpetta delves further into the case, the narrative opens and gets even more complicated and tense, including a compelling twist in the return of Jamie Berger, the girlfriend of Scarpetta’s lesbian niece, Lucy.

Red Mist is packed with intrigue and suspense. A compelling and impressive addition to this popular series.

What’s Best For Jane by Bett Norris (Bywater)

Though Bett Morris’s What’s Best For Jane is the sequel to the love story Miss McGhee, the novel easily stands on its own.  What’s Best For Jane continues the story of Mary McGhee, who is a powerful and divisive figure in her small southern town — especially among the family of her late partner, Lila Jackson, whose estate Mary inherited. 

When Mary befriends Jane Jackson, Lila’s niece, the two provide each other a surprising solace.  Jane is a lonely girl whose distinct intelligence and open-mindedness is not something her father, Lila’s brother Jimmy, appreciates or tolerates. When rumors begin to swirl about the nature of Mary and Jane’s friendship, the damage and impact is devastating.

Norris delves into the complicated aspects of this relationship and reveals how and why both characters offer each other a means of hope.  Mary is at the end of her life and Jane is just beginning — Mary encourages and fears — to find herself. 

“There was no escape,” Mary thinks after Jane reads to her Yeats poem The Second Coming, “except with this bright and shining twin of Lila, this doppelganger, a mirror image of her lover, but so much younger and with so much more opportunity than Lila had. In Jane, she saw a second coming, she had a second chance. It burned her eyes and tasted like the ashes on a martyr’s pyre.”

What’s Best For Jane is a gripping second novel by a talented storyteller.

Winter Numbers by Marilyn Hacker (Norton)

Marilyn Hacker is one of my favorite contemporary poets. Her collections have won her numerous awards, including a National Book Award, the Lenore Marshall Award, and two Lambda Literary Awards, one of which her seventh collection, Winter Numbers, received.

Winter Numbers is an evocative reflection on loss.  The poems here tackle AIDS, cancer (Hacker is a breast cancer survivor), friendship, love and grief.  The opening poem, “Against Elegies,” sets a tone that Hacker follows throughout the rest of the collection.

            Who dies well? The privilege

of asking doesn’t have to do with age.

For most of us

no question what our deaths, our lives, mean.

At the end, Catherine will know what she knew,

and James will, and Melvin,

and I, in no one’s stories, as we are.

The opening poem moves into “Nearly a Valediction”—a reflection that takes on its own mourning and echo of loss:

            While I love somebody I learn to live

with through the downpulled winter days’ routine

wakings and sleepings half-and-half caffeine-

assisted mornings, laundry, stockpots, dust

balls in the hallway, lists instead of lust

sometimes, instead of longing, trust

that what comes next comes after what came first.

She’ll never be a story I make up.  

Hacker writes about the impact of cancer on her life and others.  She dedicates “Year’s End,” the first poem of the book’s last section “Cancer Winter,” to Audre Lorde and Sonny Wainwright.

Twice in my quickly disappearing forties

someone called while someone I loved and I were

making love to tell me another woman

had died of cancer.

Marilyn Hacker is a guiding voice in contemporary poetry and this collection is one of her finest. Check her out.

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