Book Review

Cruel And Unusual

Cruel and Unusual

  • Author: Patricia D. Cornwell
  • Genre: Mystery/Thriller
  • Publication Date: June 10, 1993
  • Publisher: Little, Brown
  • Series: Kay Scarpetta #4

CONTENT WARNING: murder, gore, blood, suicide, mention of cancer, grief, mutilation, fatphobia, racial slur

Rating: 4 out of 5.

11:05 P.M. Convicted murderer Ronnie Joe Waddell is pronounced dead in the Commonwealth of Virginia’s electric chair.

In the morgue, Dr. Kay Scarpetta has been waiting for Waddell’s body. It’s a strange feeling, preparing for an autopsy before the subject is dead. But Scarpetta’s been here before. As Virginia’s chief medical examiner, she knows the tension of watching the clock as the execution hour draws near.

Waddell’s death isn’t the only newsworthy event on this cold December night. Three hours after thirteen-year-old Eddie Heath goes out to a convenience store to buy a can of soup, his nude, grotesquely wounded body is found propped against a dumpster.

Waddell’s execution, the attack on Eddie—the two events seem unrelated until Scarpetta and Richmond police lieutenant Pete Marino remember that Waddell arranged his victim in a strikingly similar position to Eddie’s. And then there’s a new murder, the most puzzling of all.

The crime scenes yield few clues: old bloodstains, fragments of feather, and—most baffling—a bloody fingerprint that points Scarpetta to the one suspect who could not possibly have committed this murder. 

And somewhere in Virginia’s corridors of power, perhaps even in her own office, lurks an enemy who will destroy Scarpetta unless she can produce the proof that will clear her name. With some help from her seventeen-year-old niece, computer whiz Lucy, as well as from her loyal friend Lieutenant Marino and FBI agent Benton Wesley, Scarpetta musters all her forensic expertise and investigative skills to uncover shocking secrets that will have vast repercussions.

Cruel and Unusual moves bestselling author Patricia D. Cornwell in dramatic new directions, confirming the extraordinary range and power of this gifted, prizewinning writer.

After finishing All That Remains, I couldn’t help but jump directly into the next book in the series. This time, Kay is trying to figure out a new set of crimes that link back to a man who was just executed. And it’s all set against the backdrop of the Christmas season.

The relationship between Kay and Marino becomes even more intense, as she has less people she is able to trust, and more pressure to solve a case that seems unsolvable. In addition, Kay is dealing with some serious grief and it impacts how she connects with others. Naturally, Marino is the one who points this out to her:

“You’ve always been this reserved, professional lady—someone real slow to let anybody in, but once the person’s there, he’s there. He’s got a damn friend for life and you’d do anything for him. But you’ve been different this past year.”

It’s clear that something is going on, and there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. However, it starts to look like Kay is being thrown under the bus, and we aren’t sure who is behind it or why they’re doing this. So Kay starts to brainstorm with Marino, and the banter between the two of them was a bright spot in a fairly dark book.

“Marino loved this game. It gave him just as much pleasure when I echoed his thoughts as it did when he believed I was flat-out wrong.”

While she’s managing to cope with the pressure well, she also gets the added stressor of needing to rely on her niece, Lucy, for her computer-based expertise. Lucy has grown up a lot since her last appearance in the series, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see her going into the law enforcement field in some capacity. But having Lucy around highlights Kay’s shortcomings in her interactions with others and her family relationships. 

Juxtaposed with her personal and internal issues, she’s stuck trying to solve another case that provides conflicting evidence, and betrayals in her professional life. I loved seeing Kay keep her cool through everything, and never doubted her for a moment. Like the other books in the series, the plot is fast-moving and surprising, allowing me to read it in a day. When the twists were revealed, I was frequently blindsided. I often try to figure things out in advance, and there were seriously only one or two that I accurately predicted. You know perfectly well that immediately upon finishing this book, I requested the next two from the library. I’m seeing a pattern here, and I hope they arrive soon, because I can’t wait to see what happens next.

People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn’t an upper limit.

Gasp Factor: 8

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