Mark Harris
June 25, 1993 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Cruel & Unusual

Current Status
In Season
Patricia D. Cornwell
Mystery and Thriller, Fiction

We gave it an A-

When it comes to the cold-blood-and-guts genre of the forensic mystery, nobody walks the line that divides professionalism and prurience more skillfully than Patricia Cornwell. Through four suspense novels featuring medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, Cornwell-a former crime reporter who once worked in the Richmond medical examiner’s office-has given Kay an almost perfect voice: a steely surface of businesslike cool that is only occasionally ruptured by passion or disgust. Scarpetta may not like what she sees on the examining table, but she doesn’t oversell either her horror or her bravado. Along the way, Cornwell has become an increasingly skilled plotter, and in Cruel & Unusual she embroils Scarpetta in a grisly case involving a recently executed murderer whose fingerprints turn up at a new crime scene. This allows Cornwell to venture into Thomas Harris territory and gives Scarpetta a chance to try to solve a combination of old crimes and new. This she does with gusto: The obligatory scenes that have become the crime-novel equivalent of arias-the discovery of a mangled body, the unearthing of a long-buried piece of evidence-are all attacked with vigor here. But Cornwell’s heart lies closer to Kay Scarpetta than to the bodies that tend to pile up around her, which is what makes the novels in this series so engrossing. Scarpetta’s status as a lonely, taut professional woman whose private life is something of a shambles does not distinguish her from most of her fictional colleagues. But what Cornwell does uniquely well in novel after novel is to rattle her heroine’s cage. In Cruel & Unusual she slams Kay up against her brilliant and brusque niece Lucy, her gravy-stained, ashtray- souled cop colleague Marino, and her own tamped-down fears and anxieties. What will become of her? Will she survive this investigation professionally and personally? Even amid scenes of horrific carnage these questions resound and make Cruel & Unusual an extremely effective novel of suspense, in all its varieties. A-

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