Audiobook Review: Port Mortuary By Patricia Cornwell, Read By Kate Burton

port mortuary audiobook One of the reasons I like UnitedMonkee.com is that it gives me a good reference point for the things I’ve read, watched and to a lesser extent listened to over the past few years. It’s far from complete — sometimes I like to keep things to myself while other times too much time has lapsed between experiencing the thing and writing about it for it to be authentic — but for the most part it’s a pretty good pop culture external hard drive for my brain.

It’s also fun to look and see how long I’ve been absorbing certain entertainment. Take audiobooks for example, I first wrote about them back in January of 2011 after we got back from a road trip and had listened to Robert B. Parker’s The Widow’s Walk. On that same trip we listened to our first Kay Scarpetta book The Scarpetta Factor and have continued to use this unique format to make our long car trips more entertaining, making our way through a chunk of the Scarpetta books in the process. For what it’s worth — and for completionists sake — we’ve listened to All That Remains, Cruel And Unusual, Predator, The Book Of The Dead, Scarpetta, Scarpetta Factor, Port Mortuary and the first third or so of Red Mist.

We get our audiobooks from three main sources: my wife’s parents who introduced us to the idea, sales at places like Amazon and Barnes & Noble and the library. Last time we took a trip, we grabbed Red Mist, but didn’t finish it. Before heading to Michigan last week, we tried using our library’s digital borrowing system which worked great, but Red Mist wasn’t available so we went with the only one that was that we hadn’t already heard, Port Mortuary, which happens to preceed Mist. This wound up being something of a blunder because I remembered enough details of Mist to know where Mortuary was ultimately going.

So, there was a certain amount of tension and mystery removed for me while listening to this book, but I’m a strong believer that you can know where something is going to end and still enjoy the journey getting there. I still enjoyed the journey this time around as some huge story elements were still unknown to me, but there was something off about this book. My wife was super bored by the whole thing and she didn’t remember nearly as much about Mist as I did.

The plot finds medical examiner extraordinaire Kay Scarpetta leaving a the titular Port Mortuary — a military medical examining station for troops, basically — and returning to the organization she’s supposed to be running only to find a mysterious dead man in her cooler and the place a mess thanks to leaving it in charge of one-time protege Jack Fielding. The whole thing unravels in the span of something like two days and finds Kay mostly playing catch-up as her FBI agent husband Benton, tech wiz niece Lucy and  detective Marino are out in the real world figuring things out and she’s in the lab, basically under house arrest thanks to a strong FBI presence.

If you look at the reviews on Amazon for this book, they’re pretty unfavorable. Most of the complaints revolve around this book being fairly slow, boring and jam-packed with information that doesn’t seem all that necessary  Many of those reviews are written by longtime Scarpetta fans, so I can’t really comment on the validity of the idea that the books have gone downhill as we’ve only listened to a pair of very abridged books from the early days. But, I think I can address the other complaints.

The book feels slow and boring because it’s first person and Kay is basically in one place, discovering pieces of information that are new to her and us, but not to anyone else. It’s not much fun watching someone basically play catch-up, even if you’re not in the know yet either. One of the keys to reading a mystery is feeling in on the action, but not smarter than the main character. It made me think less of her because, while some elements would be impossible for her to know, others are definitely her fault, specifically hiring Fielding and all the problems that come from that. Kay also brings a lot of her own paranoia and history into the story, making us believe things are going a certain way when, really, they’re not. When you’re steered in a dead end direction like this, it can be frustrating. There’s an entire part of Kay’s early days in the field that seems super important to the story, but really isn’t, it’s just something that a more recent event reminded her of and yet, it’s kept a secret like it’s a key element. These elements were kind of annoying when listening to the book, but would have probably made actually sitting down and reading this thing a slog for me personally.

I get all that and can see where those complaints are coming from, but I think Cornwell was trying to do something a little different with this story. You’re completely in Kay’s POV throughout this whole story. It’s told in the first person, so you’re never not in the room with her. We’re basically supposed to feel as confused, paranoid and angry as she is. It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure if this was the best way to go. The way this book is set up the isolation understandably breeds negative feelings, but the other downside is that we don’t get to spend as much time with the supporting characters we’ve come to know and love. I’ve got no problem with Ann, but I’d rather hang out with Lucy.

At the end of the day, I understand why this book disappointed so many readers. I also think I might understand what Cornwell was trying to do and even got sucked into it at times — I was particularly nervous during the period where she was accidentally drugged — and enjoyed it overall. For me, knowing what going to happen in the parts of Red Mist that we listened to was worse than the presentation of this book, but that’s what happens when you listen to these things in a haphazard way. Now we’ve got to get Mist back from the library or download it and finally figure out what the heck is going on there!

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