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PATRICIA D CORNWELL is currently hailed as one of America's top crime writers. Her first novel Postmortem won all the major mystery awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Cruel and Unusual - riding high in our lists - is the fourth to feature forensic sleuth Dr Kay Scarpetta. As Virginia's chief medical officer, Scarpetta (doesn't that sound like scalpel?) gets to cut up the bodies of murder victims and, thanks to the electric chair, their attackers too. This story begins with the murderer of a television anchorwoman being sent to the chair. On the same day, a boy is discovered nearly dead, his body mutilated and posed as hers had been, while the scene of the crime bears the fingerprints of the one person with a perfect alibi: the man on death row.

As Scarpetta's creator, Cornwell is well-qualified: she was a crime reporter and then worked in the chief medical examiner's office in Virginia. Her stories have a consequent authenticity - bodies on the slab are treated to chilling forensic detail - but while they are clever, they are convoluted too. Scarpetta is shrewd but she just isn't sassy or even likeable. Still, she must have something going for her, because right now she is to be seen all over the beach.