The pre-release publicity promotes Patricia Cornwell's latest Kay Scarpetta mystery (number 15 in the series), Book of the Dead, as her best in years, a return to the heady days of From Potter's Field and Body of Evidence.

So, is there some truth to the hype? Well, yes. And no. The story starts out dramatically enough: Scarpetta is summoned to Italy to consult on a high-profile murder case with a lovely young tennis star as the victim. So far, so good. The evidence is inconclusive, or at least contradictory; frustrated, Scarpetta returns to her South Carolina home. Here, she will hook up with longtime compatriot Marino, who has inexplicably given up police work to become Scarpetta's forensics lab lackey. He has also shaved his head and become a biker, complete with a pneumatic bimbo girlfriend. Much is made of Marino's unrequited puppy love for Scarpetta, acted out in increasingly childish attention-seeking vignettes which seem to be appreciated as such only by the bystanders, never by the principals. Regulars Benton Wesley (Scarpetta's boyfriend, resurrected from the dead a few books back) and Lucy (her devoted, Ferrari-driving lesbian niece) put in appearances as well. Oh, and let's not forget one of the villains of the piece: Scarpetta's longtime nemesis Dr. Marilyn Self (I always thought that character should have been named Dr. Jacqueline Hyde), once again up to no good. If you can put aside the over-the-top characterizations, though, Cornwell's plotting is up to form, and she leads the reader on a merry bicontinental chase toward an unexpected denouement.

So, the final grades: for grisly crime scene depiction, a solid A; for plot development, B+; for characters, a perhaps overly generous C-. The early Scarpetta novels rank among the best of the genre. Here's hoping that number 16 will mark a return to that form for Patricia Cornwell.

Bruce Tierney was weaned on the Hardy Boys. He writes from Saitama, Japan.

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