Daniel's Reviews > Cruel & Unusual

Cruel & Unusual by Patricia Cornwell
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's review
Feb 28, 12

Read in May, 2005

Dr. Kay Scarpetta is in it up to her neck this time. A death row inmate, Waddle, is executed, but before his body is even cool, murdered corpses start piling up with Waddle's fingerprints found at the scene of the crime. Next thing you know, people are dropping like flies, some of them close to Dr. Kay, and she is publicly implicated in the deaths.

Cornwell has written a workably entertaining mystery here. The plot is engaging and bubbling with intrigue, and the writing isn't hampered by too much extraneous detail or incidental goings-ons. There is a subplot with Kay's niece, Lucy, that I found a tad ingratiating and annoying, but for anyone reading the Scarpetta mysteries in order, it is an understandable and rather necessary bit of character development.

I do, however, object to Cornwell relegating some of the more serious character development to the back story. I'm talking about the sudden death of Kay's long-time love interest, Mark, (and, to a lesser extent, her decision to quit smoking). These are pretty significant events in Kay's life, and to leave them in the background as part of the story dressing seems at odds with an author who wants us to sympathize with her character.

To that end, some of the story ended up either ringing false to me, or just falling flat. For example, there is much made of Kay's financial secrets, which she refers to in connection with embarassment and rage. When the secrets are finally revealed, I found them to be maudlin and a little silly. It baffled me why Kay would take such pains to keep them hidden.

Furthermore, I respect Cornwell's decision to keep her novels secured solely in the Holmesian realm of mystery solving, but this means that there is very little action in the book, and a lot of key details are discussed and reviewed over and over again by the characters. It makes for repetitive reading. It also means that the actual discovery of the culprit's identity is never as important as the sleuthing that went into discovering that identity.

In other words, if you're looking for closure with this story, you won't get much. Cornwell does a great job of setting up quite a puzzler, and it will keep you guessing. But, much like a magician with an amazing magic trick, once you learn the secret, you're bound to be a little disappointed.
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