Picks and Pans Review: Cruel & Unusual

updated 07/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Patricia D. Cornwell

Strange things start to happen just before the Commonwealth of Virginia's scheduled execution of Ronnie Joe Waddell. On the eve of his date with the electric chair, the comatose body of a 13-year-old boy is discovered. He is mutilated and propped up like a doll, just as Waddell's victim, anchorwoman Robyn Naismith, had been when discovered a decade earlier. A few days after the execution, there is another homicide—and a fingerprint recovered at the scene matches Waddell's.

This is only the beginning of the most suspenseful case thus far for Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Cornwell's popular medical examiner-sleuth. As Scarpetta doggedly applies her forensic expertise to unravel the mystery, the clues in the case hit increasingly close to home. First, Scarpetta starts to suspect her staffs complicity in the disturbing events—then the police target her as a suspect. Eventually, both Scarpetta's career and life are on the line as she matches wits with a bloodthirsty killer.

This is the best work yet from Cornwell, a Richmond, Va., resident who spent several years working in the Richmond chief medical examiner's office. Her writing is more self-assured; her plot is better paced. She is a knockout at crafting forensic scenes and is becoming equally adept at giving texture to the story. And the one Cornwell has to tell here is not just cruel—but compelling. (Scribner's, $21)

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