Crime waves

The Last Precinct

Patricia Cornwell <em>Little, Brown, 449pp, £16.99 </em>

ISBN 0316646245

In the ten years since Patricia Cornwell published Post-Mortem, her superbly original debut novel, many imitators have appeared on the scene and Cornwell's own writing has proved unreliable: as Dr Kay Scarpetta evolved from a credible and compassionate chief medical examiner into a crusader for justice, bent on ridding the world of evil, the series has veered disappointingly between lethargy and evangelism. With her new novel, however, Cornwell has returned to form.

The Last Precinct opens with Scarpetta in the alien role of accused, bizarrely implicated in the murder of a police chief whom she despised. She protests her innocence against mounting paranoia, isolation and corruption. A New York prosecutor, Jaime Berger (clearly inspired by Cornwell's friend and fellow novelist, Linda Fairstein), is brought in to lead the enquiry, breathing new life into Scarpetta's world and relegating the usual entourage of characters - the impossibly overachieving niece, the cynical police colleague, the murdered former lover - to minor roles.

The quality of the prose has shifted up a gear, with a new sense of immediacy arising from the switch to a present-tense narrative. Cornwell's powers of description have always been acute, even poetic, when dealing with the landscape of the human body, but The Last Precinct is concerned with a much broader canvas: a mother's grief at the death of her young son, the deeply ingrained war scars still felt by one of Scarpetta's friends.

Cornwell has written an elegy to the way in which we create and destroy our own worlds. And when she is this good, she is hard to beat.

Complete with an amateur sleuth, a misguided police force and a final gathering of suspects worthy of Poirot himself, Minette Walters's new novel could be a Golden Age detective story. Yet The Shape of Snakes is an extremely modern story. At its heart is the murder of a black woman, Annie Butts, who is viciously beaten and left to die in the street. Suffering from Tourette's syndrome, the symptoms of which include the body jerking and the involuntary uttering of obscenities, Annie has long been abused by the predominantly white community in which she lives. For complex reasons, the neighbour who finds the body sets herself against police, friends and even family to secure justice on behalf of a woman whom she barely knew.

Walters is tackling serious social questions: the perpetuated sins of the father, a child's capacity for evil, selective justice, police corruption, child abuse and the plight of the outsider are all fashionably touched upon. But the central issue is particularly timely: how, in the wake of the Lawrence inquiry, can you be sure that any crime involving a black victim has been properly investigated?

By a compassionate insistence on pushing the victim's personality to the fore, even at the expense of the narrator, Walters avoids most of the politically correct pitfalls that a white novelist might fall into with such subject matter. But for all the detailed statements, reports and letters that combine to highlight conscious and unconscious racism, The Shape of Snakes remains a strangely distanced piece of fiction, an accomplished insight into the failings of British justice, but one that fails to move on a deeper level.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Divorce your husband and watch him get rich