I have been a Patricia Cornwell fan since she began her Kay Scarpetta series in 1990. She was extremely prolific, following up that bestseller with 23 additional adventures of the talented medical examiner. While the early Scarpetta thrillers were terrific page turners, focusing more on the mysteries than on the personalities, the last entries – Depraved Heart and Chaos – were disappointing. Scarpetta’s relationships with those around her, including her niece, Lucy, became downright weird. On Amazon, where five star praise dominated Cornwell’s books, reviews turned into one and two star ones, with many readers saying they had read their last Scarpetta novel.
Apparently Cornwell responded to those criticisms because her new thriller, Quantum, introduces a new protagonist, Captain Calli Chase, a NASA pilot, quantum physicist, and cybercrime investigator. Calli is a twin, and with her identical sister, Carme, grew up outside NASA Langley in Hampton, Virginia. Both women dreamed of going into space. We’re told in the press information that accompanied an advance copy of the book, that Cornwell spent two years doing research for Quantum, gaining insider access “to one of the most secret and impregnable institutions.” Besides touring NASA facilities around the country, she learned to space walk, explored training facilities used by well known astronauts, and even worked with record breaking astronaut Peggy Whitson. All of this research is not unusual for Cornwell who, when writing the Scarpetta series, earned certifications as a scuba diver and helicopter pilot, while learning all she could about autopsies, ballistics, weapons, and motorcycles. All of that added to the depth of knowledge she conveyed in each Scarpetta adventure.
Amazon, promoting Quantum as a First Reads Selection for September 2019, provided the book to many of the site’s most dependable and prolific reviewers. While the book’s official publication date is October 1, those first readers have already begun to post their reviews. I held off going online, wanting to read the book fresh and come to my own opinion. But only a dozen pages in, alarm bells began to sound. The plot moved at a snail’s pace, literally, since Calli was working her way through a tunnel, dubbed the Yellow Submarine, with one of her colleagues, Fran, who comes off as so annoying one hopes she gets left behind in the dark. Calli finds blood in the tunnel and believes that someone without proper credentials has gained access. The two women’s process in the tunnel is interrupted with flashbacks to a time when Calli cut her finger. She describes lots of blood, nearly passing out, and trying to hide the evidence from someone named Dick. When Dick – General Dick Melville – does turn up, we never learn whether he and Calli had an affair or were just mentor-mentee. He tells Calli that her sister, Carme, may be in trouble, but refuses to give any details.
The plot doesn’t get better when the body of a 54 year-old electrical engineer, part of a team from Houston, is found in a house on NASA grounds in Hampton, an apparent suicide. The body was doused in bleach, no empty bottle in sight, turning the death into a murder. Calli and Fran don protective gear to process the crime scene which, once again, moves at a glacial pace, with numerous complaints about sweating inside the suits. The other strange detail – there’s talk about the arctic temperatures outside. In Virginia? In early December? The area, in the southeastern corner of the state, is known for its temperate climate. The record lowest temperature of seven degrees below zero, was recorded on January 21, 1985, according to Wikipedia. My guess is that low point will not be seen again with global warming. So why is Calli shivering?
When Calli’s finished at the crime scene, she drives home, that location a garage like structure on the grounds of her parents’ home. While driving she talks to her mother about basically nothing, while in the back of her mind she’s worried that her sister, Carme, has gone rogue and may be connected, not only to the unauthorized access to Yellow Submarine, but also to the staged suicide. She also suspects that her mother might be hiding Carme, but never comes right out to ask her. All of this is very frustrating for the reader and one can imagine many shouting at the page – “Ask her already!”
Carme does show up in Calli’s bathroom – I won’t tell you how – but even her appearance adds little to what is going on or whether she’s involved. And guess what? Calli is supposed to be at the launch of a space vehicle and arrives at Mission Control with minutes to spare. One wonders why she was wasting time at a murder scene when such an important space project was in her hands.
But here’s the kicker, the book ends without an ending. Yes, you read that right. To really answer all the questions the reader is left with, that involves buying part two in the series available next year.
From the reviews I have read online, most readers will pass. (Diehard Cornwell fans might bite, but also could be put off by all those negative reviews.) The big mystery here is not what happened in Quantum, but what has happened to a previously talented author who seems to have gone off track and wasted two years of research on a book and a follow up that stands little chance to take off.
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