Content Warning: Discussion of The Body Farm by Patricia Cornwell includes mentions of child abduction, murder, alcoholism, serial murders, and adultery.
With the content warning above, you’d think this was a book that shaped my adult life while I was an adult. This isn’t the case. To prepare myself for this article, I reread the book I’d once held in my teenaged hands and I’m quite distressed my mom allowed a book with so much horror directed toward a young girl into my bedroom. It’s not a book I’d want my daughter to read, even as an older teen. I’d simply ask her to consider waiting until she had a smidgen more life experience before engaging with the adult themes in the book.
Unfortunately, I missed the young adult section completely in my teens. My literary diet went straight from absorbing middle grade titles such as The Babysitters Club and Little House in the Big Woods directly to indulging in Harlequin romances, historical romances, and other adult titles including Louis L’Amour westerns and my all-time favorite book Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett. Looking back, I blame this on my failure to connect with my peers. I preferred the adult world to the overly complicated teenaged one.
While all of the titles above hold special places in my life, none shaped or affected me the way The Body Farm has. I can’t even say it’s a top ten favorite book of mine although the writing is stellar and Patricia Cornwell is a master of delving into deeper social issues while having her main character Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Esquire (yep, she’s both) hunt serial killers.
To explain how this book shaped me, I have to start with the Dr. Kay Scarpetta. It wasn’t so much what she did as who she was. Kay is the Chief Medical Examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia and works with a special unit of the FBI. Even now, exactly how her job works is a little bit of a mystery to me, and if you want to know more I’d suggest spending some time on her dedicated Wikipedia page. As a young teen, what I understood was that she helped solve crimes for the FBI.
In this book, while she does have a strong relationship with her niece, she’s single with no children. She is respected, smart, and sophisticated. She’s deeply empathetic to the deceased and isn’t afraid to cry. She doesn’t have a large social network and doesn’t need it. Her life revolves around seeking justice for those who have died at the hands of another.
My teenaged self wanted to be all of the above. And so my idea of how to become this person I admired so completely was to have a career in law enforcement. I wanted to be Kay’s mirror image.
But there were a couple key elements my naïve younger self did not understand at the time. Life is rarely as easy or exciting as portrayed in fiction. My eye on the prize was to apply for the FBI when I became of age (23) so I could fight the good fight, and I’m glad that by becoming a military police officer at such a young age (18), I quickly realized that if I wanted to sleep at night, I needed to find a different way to help others. I left law enforcement and never followed my dreams of joining the FBI. I don’t regret this.
Thinking I had found my true calling career-wise wasn’t the only perspective I gained from the book. This was my first introduction, in literature, to a gay character. A strong secondary plot to the book revolves around Kay’s gay niece, Lucy. At the time I read this book I did not know a single gay person. In fact, I’d only known one friend who had gay parents and begged me to never tell her secret to another person. With this background and the treatment of Kay’s niece by practically everyone in the book, I lived with the assumption that being gay was something you didn’t talk about.
After rereading the book, I now realize Cornwell’s treatment of Lucy’s character was in fact to begin a conversation where a gay character felt comfortable discussing being gay with a family member. My life experiences at the time were too limited to understand this.
An excerpt from the book:
“Lucy, I’m not judging you,” I said, but in a way I was. “Help me understand.”
“You imply I’m unnatural or abnormal, otherwise I would not need understanding. I would simply be accepted without a second thought.”
Some spoilers of the book to follow.
A central theme of the book is mothers, daughters, and their sometimes turbulent relationships. We learn Kay does not get along well with her mother. And while Lucy does get along well with her mother, Kay does not think Lucy’s mother is a fit parent. It is also carries through to the investigation, as the eleven year old victim has a toxic relationship with her mother.
As a teen, I got along with my mom. Mostly. I related to Kay’s need to distance herself from her mother. The physical space between them made sense. My need for independence suggested I make the same space, and I did when I joined the military soon after graduation. Now that I’m the mother of a daughter, I try to be careful in my judgments of her and respectful of her need for independence. Otherwise, she too will end up half a world away.
I’ve spent an enormous amount of time talking about how this book shaped me and I haven’t even discussed the plot. I’m not sure if I really need to, but I will for those who haven’t read it. Cornwell published this book twenty-one years ago. Some of the crime solving technology has changed, but at the time it was enjoyable to read about the process used in finding murderers. If suspense and thrillers are your thing and you haven’t read a book by Patricia Cornwell, I can’t recommend her Kay Scarpetta series enough.
In The Body Farm, Dr. Kay Scarpetta is called in to assist in the investigation of an 11-year-old’s murder. The young girl’s death has many similarities to a serial killer that the team has been hunting. The team puts down stakes in a small North Carolina town where the murder occurred, and soon finds many of the clues point them away from their initial hypothesis. If I go into too much detail, I’ll spoil the end–and if there’s one thing I enjoyed about this book it is the ability of Kay to put aside her personal obstacles, which include adultery with a co-worker, her niece’s alcoholism, and the dissolution of a friendship, to find the killer.
This is a book I sincerely enjoyed reading again with a much more mature perspective. I’m glad I read it as a teen as it pushed me in a direction I may otherwise not have taken. However, if I could go back to my teen self, I may replace the book with some smart young adult mysteries. Probably ones that would not go into such graphic details about a little girl’s murder.