Any pop culture fan's list of prominent medical examiners has to mention Kay Scarpetta on the same line as Quincy. As the star of Cornwell's numerous best sellers (e.g., The Body Farm, LJ 8/95), Scarpetta now must use her technosavvy investigative skills to combat a vicious supremacist group.
First, the good news: the omni-competent Kay Scarpetta is back, along with her sidekicks, in a murder mystery that's tighter than her last escapade, From Potter's Field. Chief medical examiner for the state of Virginia and an FBI consultant, Kay finds ample opportunity to demonstrate her skills in the autopsy room and outside it, too: here, she also dives with a Navy SEAL rescue squad and, through her computer-genius niece Lucy, an FBI agent, takes an up-close-and-personal look at a robot operated via virtual reality. But there is bad news: the work lacks the extraordinary, can't-go-to-bed-til-you're-finished suspense of Cornwell's earlier novels, e.g. Cruel and Unusual. The killers here, members of a nihilistic, fascist cult who think their founder akin to God, are identified early on but never developed as characters. Their crimes, while heinous, don't baffle and tease the reader (or Kay) in the manner of the villain Temple Gault, who was dismissed in the last book. While Cornwell's authoritative presentation of forensic sleuthing, FBI procedures and high-tech crime-fighting compensates mightily for the overneat dovetailing of characters' paths and even the implausible role Kay plays in the climax, the hurried, almost slapdash pace of the climactic scenes is disappointing from so accomplished a writer. But even at less than her best, Cornwell remains a master of the genre, instilling in readers an appetite that only she can satisfy. One million first printing; $750,000 ad/promo; Literary Guild, Mystery Guild and Doubleday Book Club main selections. (July)