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Postmortem is a crime fiction novel by author Patricia Cornwell. The first book of the Dr. Kay Scarpetta series, it received the 1991 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Plot summary

The novel opens as Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Chief Medical Examiner for the state of Virginia, receives an early-morning call from Sergeant Pete Marino, a homicide detective at the Richmond Police Department with whom Scarpetta has a tense working relationship. She meets him at the scene of a woman's gruesome strangling, the latest in a string of unsolved murders in Richmond.

The killer leaves behind few clues; among them are a mysterious substance which fluoresces under laser light, traces of semen, and in the vicinity of the last murder, an unusual smell. Scarpetta and Marino work with FBI profiler Benton Wesley to attempt to piece together a profile of the killer. Initial evidence appears to point to the fourth victim's husband, but Scarpetta suspects otherwise despite Marino's insistence. (The book references DNA profiling as a relatively new technique, and characters briefly bemoan the lack of a criminal DNA database which could provide better leads to suspects, given available evidence.)

Meanwhile in her personal life, Scarpetta must deal with the presence of her extremely precocious ten-year-old niece, Lucy, as well as an uncertain romantic relationship with the local Commonwealth's attorney.

During the investigation, a series of news leaks about the murders appear to be coming from a source within the medical examiner's office. The leaks threaten Scarpetta's position, especially after she is forced to admit that her office database has been compromised.

Believing that the killer thrives on media attention and hoping to flush him out by provoking his ego, Scarpetta, Wesley, and local investigative reporter Abby Turnbull (whose sister was the fifth victim) conspire to release a news story which suggests that the killer has a distinctive body odor due to a rare metabolic disease and implies that the killer may be mentally disordered.

While attempting to find another link between the five murders, Scarpetta discovers that all five intended victims had recently called 911; she suspects that the killer is a 911 operator and chose his victims based on their voices.

Scarpetta is awakened in the middle of the night by the killer, who has broken into her home. As she attempts to reach a gun she has kept nearby for protection, Marino bursts into her bedroom and shoots the intruder, having realized that the news article would make Scarpetta a likely target. Scarpetta's suspicion proves to be correct; the killer was a police and sometime 911 dispatcher.

Characters in Postmortem

  • Kay Scarpetta - Chief Medical Examiner.
  • Benton Wesley - FBImarker Profiler. "He was FBI right down to his Florsheim shoes, a sharp featured man with prematurely silver hair suggesting a mellow disposition that wasn't there. He was lean and hard and looked like a trial lawyer in his precisely tailored khaki suit and blue silk paisley-printed tie. I couldn't recall ever seeing him in a shirt that wasn't white and lightly starched. He had a master's degree in psychology and had been a high school principal in Dallas before enlisting in the Bureau, where he worked first as a field agent, then undercover in fingering members of the Mafia, before ending up where he'd started, in a sense."
  • Dorothy Farinelli - Kay's sister and mother of Lucy. Her current boyfriend is Ralph. Kay says of her that, "my sister should never have been a mother. My sister should never have been Italian."
  • Lucy Farinelli - Kay's ten-year-old niece. Described as being, "a genius, an impossible little holy terror of enigmatic Latin descent whose father died when she was small. She had no one but my only sister, Dorothy, who was too caught up in writing children's books to worry much about her flesh-and-blood daughter."
  • Pete Marino - Detective Sergeant in the Richmondmarker Police Department. Described as "pushing fifty, with a face life had chewed on, and long wisps of greying hair parted low on one side and combed over his balding pate. At least six feet tall, he was bay-windowed from decades of bourbon or beer."


  • Brenda Steppe
  • Patty Lewis
  • Cecilie Tyler
  • Lori Anne Petersen
  • Henna Yarborough - Sister of Abby Turnbull.

Major themes

  • The hunt for a skillful and mysterious "Mr Nobody" serial killer.

Literary significance & criticism

Postmortem, Patricia Cornwell's first novel, was published in 1990 following advice from editors at Mysterious Press to dump the then-male central character and to expand the character of Kay Scarpetta. The novel was an evident success; with it Cornwell became the first author to receive the Edgar, Creasey, Anthony and Macavity Awards and the French Prix du Roman d'Adventure in a single year.

Awards and nominations

Patricia Cornwell received the Edgar, Creasey, Anthony and Macavity Awards and the French Prix du Roman d'Adventure for Postmortem.


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