Monday, 8 December 2008

From Potter's Field by Patricia Cornwell


Occasionally, I dip my toe in the pool of popular literature, and the strange thing is I persist in doing this, even if almost every time I do, it either gets scalded or bitten off by a pike.

My most recent exercise in toe dipping involved From Potter's Field by Patricia Cornwell. I worship Tom Waits, and he wrote a song called 'Potter's Field' and I though the novel might be related to it in some murky post-modernity way. And anything to do with Tom Waits must be brilliant, or so I thought. I should have borne in mind the Rod Stewart covers of his songs, that are just naff reprises of the original. I should have been more circumspect and thought - there is glory, and then there is reflected glory, and then there is stuff that is nothing to do with anything at all glorious. You have to approach these things with caution. The part of me that continues to have faith in human nature maintained that so many people revered Cornwell that she couldn't be bad. The more cynical side thought that popularity must equal bilge. Numerous evidences could be cited in support of the second proposition, and alas, precious few in support of the former.

From Potter's Field joins the multitude, I am afraid. Cornwell is not a bad writer as such - but Potter's shows she is a poor plotter and her characters don't act or speak in a belivable manner.

Her plotting technique seems to involve exaggerated withoholding of a key piece of information or action. The classic example of this is The Hound Of the Baskervilles, where Conan Doyle keeps Sherlock Holmes off stage for most of the novel, and once he turns up he reveals everything in 5 minutes. All crime stories rely on withholding - it wouldn't be much fun if the criminal admitted to the crime on page 5 - though then we might have space for a proper investigation into motive for and consequence of the crime, both of which rarely feature in crime literature, and particularly in From Potter's Field.

In Cornwell's case, it is the crucial plot element could have been realised at almost every point - characters talk about it early in the story, then seem to forget about it for a couple of hundred pages, until the bland and unlikable Kay Scarpetta remembers it and decides to put it into effect, at which point the plot resolves itself in a most helpful manner. this wouldn't be too awful, if the intervening 200 pages were more interesting than the are.


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