Sunday, 18 January 2009

“Isle of Dogs”, Patricia Cornwell

Sometimes reading moves from the sublime to the ridiculous. The experience of finishing Steig Larsson's “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and moving on to one of Cornwell's non-Scarpetta books is almost enough to make one despair.

It takes a while to work out what Cornwell is attempting with “Isle of Dogs”. Let's be clear, this is not another police procedural in the manner of the Scarpetta series, just with a different suite of characters. Herein lies the problem. Since “The Last Precinct” Cornwell has clearly been bored by the formula that served he well, the later Scarpetta novels, and the Andy Brazil series show a distinct change of tone, Scarpetta's story taking a profoundly darker turn, and Brazil representing an experiment with magic realism. Having made her reputation with Scarpetta she may well have sought to escape being typecast as just another formulaic crime novelist. As such something like “Isle of Dogs” can be seen as a completely understandable step. The trouble is it doesn't really work.

The problems start with the character of Andy Brazil. The persona of the state trooper cum blogger-journalist simply doesn't ring true. One role or another might work, but the way in which they are fused, and the concept that a police superintendent could readily allow one of their staff to work with such freedom, or that they would see the value in them doing so stretches credibility beyond breaking point. Furthermore, the “Trooper Truth” series of columns fail utterly to convince me that they would inspire a frenzy of public attention, reading instead like countless other bland unread blog entries. It's to Cornwell's credit that she sees the power of the changing media landscape, but sadly Trooper Truth doesn't seem like the Web2.0 phenomenon he's cut out to be.

Stylistically “Isle of Dogs” clearly attempts to be a comic novel. There's nothing wrong with novels raising a smile, and there's no particular reason not to find humour in crime, however I just don't think Patricia Cornwell is very good at it. All too often humour resorts to crude toilet gags and simplistic pokes of fun at Virginia patois, in neither case really succeeding in achieving even a wry smile.

Magic realism is a dangerous concept to try and use. It's genuinely rare to find a case of it being used effectively and the attempts to introduce it in “Isle of Dogs”, with sentient crabs and zippers impervious to bullets don't work. I'm not saying this to be horrible or cruel, it's just the case that the the book would ultimately be better off without them.

The Brazil series has clearly sold, and I suspect there may be those to whom it will appeal, but too much of it trades on the Cornwell name. Reading it is too much like hard work – it's neither a comic novel, nor an effective police work, and too much of the time it comes across as just silly, and not in a good way.

1 comment:

  1. Quite a juxtaposition, as you say (Larsson and Cornwell). I read the first few Scarpettas, rather liking the first couple, but have long since stopped reading them as I find them boring and flat, now. I read the first Andy Brazil but did not like it - it was clearly intended to be funny but I did not smile. So, no more Cornwell for me.