Cruel and Unusual

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

As CRUEL AND UNUSUAL opens, Kay Scarpetta, the chief medical examiner of Virginia, awaits word that the execution of Ronnie Joe Waddell has taken place so that she can perform the autopsy. While she is waiting, she receives word of the unusual wounding of a young boy, Eddie Heath, who later dies. Scarpetta finds an envelope on Waddell’s body, marked with the instructions that it be buried with him. The envelope contains only recent roadway toll and food receipts, which Waddell should not have had because he was in custody.

As Scarpetta investigates Eddie Heath’s death, she finds striking similarities to the murder for which Waddell was executed. She also discovers that her computer system was infiltrated, most likely in a search for information about the investigation into Heath’s death. She sends for her teenage niece Lucy, a computer expert, to help her find out how the system was infiltrated and who did it.

Just prior to Waddell’s execution, Scarpetta had received numerous hang-up calls that her caller ID system identified as being from the same number. Soon after the execution, the woman at that number is found dead. Fingerprints at her home are identified as Waddell’s. That evidence, along with the similarity of Heath’s murder to the one for which Waddell was executed, leads Scarpetta to believe that either the wrong man was executed and Waddell is on the loose or that computer files on Waddell have been altered so that someone else’s fingerprints will be identified as Waddell’s. When information about Waddell disappears from Scarpetta’s office, she suspects that a coworker is involved. Her investigation is further complicated when she in turn becomes a suspect in the murder. She must try to resolve the mystery while extricating herself from an apparent conspiracy to find her guilty.

CRUEL AND UNUSUAL benefits from the rapid progression of events that keep the plot moving, numerous believable but unexpected twists, and Cornwell’s skill at depicting the operation of a coroner’s office. The book is more than a procedural, delving into Scarpetta’s relationship with her niece and various other relationships. All major characters are filled out nicely.