Pity poor Butner Fluck, improbably named and somewhat inept nemesis of law and order in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Butner, aka Bubba (one of his few nicknames suitable for a family audience), was not born into the tribe of Bubbas, as author Cornwell puts it, but he has camouflaged himself pretty well among their number. He has a Jeep, a coon dog, a huge power tool and handgun collection, and a best friend named Smudge. Bubba also has a strong belief in the presence of aliens (as in extraterrestrials) among us. Bubba is, as they say, not the sharpest pencil in the box.

Meanwhile, across town, Niles, a feisty feline belonging to Deputy Police Chief Virginia West, lolls about on the keyboard of his owner's computer and wonders why Ms. West no longer keeps company with Officer Andy Brazil, aka the Piano Man. Niles is not going to wonder for long, however, because Virginia West is about to enter the room and accuse him of somehow causing little blue fish to appear on the screen of her computer. The fish are not Niles's fault; they are part of a nationwide computer virus which will bring police computers to a standstill.

Officer Andy Brazil also wonders why he no longer keeps company with Deputy Police Chief Virginia West. He knows he'd certainly like to, but she seems to want no part of him. Andy can't figure out just why that might be; he's cute, sensitive, funny, and he drives a BMW Z3.

Off in the Confederate Cemetery, Weed Gardener (I am not making these names up), a talented young artist, applies poster paint to the statue of Jefferson Davis, deftly transforming the southern leader into a black college basketball player, to the dismay of old-line Richmondites.

At a suburban ATM, Smoke, a hardened juvenile delinquent and incipient gang leader, sits in his Ford Escort with his girlfriend, Divinity, awaiting unsuspecting prey. Anyone using the teller machine to get some cash is a likely target, but the smaller and weaker, the better.

In a manner more reminiscent of Carl Hiaasen than of her earlier self, author Cornwell weaves these disparate loose ends into an intricate pattern, a strange one to be sure, but nonetheless intricate. Readers used to the matter-of-fact tone of the Scarpetta novels may find Southern Cross a bit quirky and irreverent, but that will not stop them from turning the pages guaranteed.

Bruce Tierney lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

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