“Unnatural Exposure” by Patricia Cornwell

Cornwell, Patricia. Unnatural Exposure (1997)  
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 338 pages, $25.95 hardcover   
ISBN 0 399 14285 1

After Cornwell’s two recent disasters, Cause of Death and Hornet’s Nest, I approached Unnatural Exposure with trepidation. Dr. Kay Scarpetta returns in a novel that doesn’t exhibit Hornet’s Nest’s lack of focus but that does, like Cause of Death, suffer from plotting problems.

When a human torso is discovered in a landfill in Virginia, Dr. Scarpetta joins the search for a serial killer that had begun several years earlier in Europe. Soon Dr. Scarpetta realizes that, instead of only a serial killer, she may be hunting a psychopath planning to unleash a deadly epidemic on the population. The search becomes more personal when Kay begins receiving photos of the victims over America Online from someone using the screen name deadoc.

The plot inconsistencies arise from the way Dr. Scarpetta reacts to the epidemic threat. When a victim dies on an island off the coast of Virginia, she insists that the island be quarantined; yet she shows no overt concern for the health of the elderly local doctor who treated the patient and reported the death. Later, after Scarpetta has spent some time in a government maximum-quarantine facility and been released, she develops flu-like symptoms. She insists that she’s just coming down with the flu and goes about her business when, in fact, she of all people should be back knocking on the hospital door insisting to be let back in.

The final plot weakness of this novel is the denouement. Don’t even try to figure out ahead of time who the villain is. The ending comes out of nowhere, with no preparation.

And I keep hoping that Scarpetta will change at least a little, that she’ll mellow a bit and become a better human being. But in Unnatural Exposure she’s back at her characteristic rotten treatment of Pete Marino. 

When Kay finds the first photo from deadoc on AOL, she’s terrified. She immediately calls Marino, and he comes right over, arriving at “almost midnight.” He goes into her home office to look at her computer screen:

His eyes were fastened to the screen, and he adjusted my chair. Then his big feet shoved books on the floor as he made himself comfortable. When he picked up files and moved them to another corner of my desk, I couldn’t stand it any longer.

“I have things where I want them,” I pointedly said as I returned the files to their original messy space.

“Hey, chill out, Doc,” he said as if it didn’t matter. “How do we know that this thing ain’t a hoax?”

Again, he moved the files out of his way, and now I was really irritated.

“Marino, you’re going to have to get up,” I said. “I don’t let anybody sit at my desk. You’re making me crazy.”

He shot me an angry look and got up out of my chair. “Hey, do me a favor. Next time call somebody else when you got a problem.”

“Try to be sensitive . . .”

He cut me off, losing his temper. “No. You be sensitive and quit being such a friggin’ fussbudget.” (p. 38)

While Unnatural Exposure isn’t as good as Cornwell’s earliest novels, it’s definitely not as bad as the previous two. Let’s hope this trend continues.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

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