Dr Kay Scarpetta is back

PORT MORTUARY
BY PATRICIA CORNWELL
Little, Brown £18.99


OOH, goodie. Patricia Cornwell – the reigning queen of crime fiction – is back with her 18th Dr Kay Scarpetta thriller. Only this time we get Kay herself: after years of third person, Kay is back in her own voice.

And what a tight, riveting story she has to tell. The action kicks off at Port Mortuary, where Kay has spent six months on duty for the armed forces medical examiner. It’s a military airbase where bodies are received from the battlefield. Scarpetta is training in the art of virtual autopsies (as you do) – which uses 3-D imaging radiology and CT scans in the morgue. She’s rather sad to leave – while at the base, she hasn’t been the top dog, for once. Usually everyone depends on her for everything.

She’s bound for Cambridge, MA, home of her new headquarters – her mastery of the technique will be essential there for it’s the first civilian facility in the US to use this technology.

She’s not there long before the death of a young scientist – eerily close to Scarpetta’s home – ruffles her feathers. His injuries, revealed by the 3-D radiology scans, reveal internal injuries unlike any Scarpetta has ever seen. Soon she and her team realise they are fighting a cunning and cruel enemy who is using robotic technology made for warfare – on the street.

The book is long, terse, and brilliant. Cornwell, who has already won more prizes than you can shake a huge stick at, and whose work has been translated into 36 languages, seems to be getting better and better.
Zoe Strimpel

NEMESIS
BY PHILLIP ROTH
Jonathan Cape, £16.99

PHILLIP Roth continues with his “more is more, but only when it’s small” approach – as yet another sliver of a book from this man who never runs out of things to say hits the shelves.

Nemesis is not about women or ageing (though it is about death), and it takes place in the New Jersey of Roth’s youth, putting it more in the Plot Against America category, rather than the recent Indignation/Exit Ghost/The Humbling categories. And it is therefore, in my opinion, a better book.
Roth’s focus here is a would-be scenario of a polio epidemic in New Jersey. The hero is Eugene “Bucky” Cantor, a gym instructor at a public school. Because of poor eyesight he was exempted from the draft – and feels very bad about it. To make up for it, he devotes himself to the kids. When the polo breaks out, he stays calm, running a summer playground activity centre for his boys. Amid the panic, only Bucky stays calm – even when some of the kids at the playground get sick or die.

As with every other plague in history (and Roth’s counterhistory), fingers start to point before long, and the Jews get the brunt of it. The Jews, for their part, blame the Italians and everyone blames a cripple, who Bucky alone cherishes.

But there is trouble awaiting even the saintly hero – his girlfriend has found a hideout where she wants him to weather the storm with him. He doesn’t want to walk out on the crisis, but is ultimately faced with an offer he can’t refuse.

This is an extreme study of a community facing its own mortality, with characteristically detailed evocation of wartime New Jersey. Short, but sweet.
Zoe Strimpel


WHY US? HOW SCIENCE REDISCOVERED THE MYSTERY OF OURSELVES
BY JAMES LE FANU
HarperCollins, £9.99

THE Daily Telegraph’s James Le Fanu is simultaneously too modest and too removed from the shouting of the pop-science scrum to say it, but this book is a full, perfect, and sufficient antidote to the harsh sharpness of the Richard Dawkins school of scientific atheism.

It’s not that Why Us? is one of the recently common category of book which seeks to apply a religious approach to science, however hard the fit. Far from it; Le Fanu’s latest book is a robust and thoughtful work of genuine scientific analysis, of impressive scope – but this is married with a remarkably generous sense of wonder and awe at the achievements and discoveries of science and scientists.

In these times of economic malaise and cuts, Le Fanu’s demonstration of the great medical and technological advances which have been objectifiably and verifiably made in our time is uplifting – and a cause for optimism about our future, too.

It has to be noted that Le Fanu doesn’t dumb down and doesn’t pull his punches – there’s a lot of pretty dense scientific stuff in here, and although it’s elegantly explained, some readers will blanch at the charts and figures with which he develops his thesis.

But it’s worth it. As Le Fanu reminds us, Proust said that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.” If you’ve hitherto lacked much of an interest in science (perhaps because the bellicose Dawkins and co have turned you off) then let Le Fanu open your eyes – you’ll share his genuine excitement at the achievements of your fellow man, and you’ll like your guide along the way. Best of all, you’ll feel you’ve learned something; your brain will have felt awakened. And that’s a good feeling. Alex Deane
Alex Deane is the director of Big Brother Watch, a think tank.