Cruel and Unusual is the fourth novel in the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell. For previous Cornwell/Scarpetta love in case you haven’t read how passionate I am about the series, click here.
When convicted killer Ronnie Joe Waddell is executed in Virginia’s electric chair, he becomes what should be a routine postmortem case for Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta. But after Waddell’s execution, the murders continue, as everyone connected to him begins to die — including a member of Scarpetta’s staff.
Then, when crucial records disappear from her files, Scarpetta comes under fire for incompetence. Caught in a web of political intrigue, betrayed by those she trusted, Scarpetta must fight to free herself from murderous insinuations– and threats to her own life.
To save her career, Scarpetta soon finds herself retracing Waddell’s bloody footprints, following a trail that might lead to long-hidden secrets deep within the state government. Either the truth will set her free — or unleash upon her a punishment both cruel and unusual.
Since last Christmas I have been using the Scarpetta series as escapism and relaxing readings meaning that the more stressed I am, the more I long for the hard-working, professional and clever Dr. Kay Scarpetta and this time was not different. After reading my dissertation on 1st July I felt I needed a prize and immediately knew I wanted a Scarpetta novel. But at the same I realized I couldn’t remember the last one I’d read: no plot came to mind! How could I have forgotten about three books read in 6 months so quickly? Probably because I’d read them when I was really stressed, probably because I devoured them which usually leaves me with holes about the book. But I thought it was OK as long as I enjoyed reading them and was willing to revisit them.
So, what can I say about Cruel and Unusual? It tackles some very interesting themes and social problems: death penalty, the still current issue with DNA and fingerprints to ID a subject and the huge volume of information some workers have access to and how they treat it. For example, almost everyone working on a hospital has access to our personal information, address yet we gladly provide them with all of that information expecting it to be treated as confidentially as they want us to believe. Sadly, sometimes it does not happen so and Cornwell explores the consequences of the system – in the form a worker – failing those who it is supposed to serve.
More importantly, “cruel and unusual” refers to death penalty, a theme that triggers the rest of the novel. Nowadays we rely on DNA to ID a criminal. But what happened when DNA was not so commonplace? I was born in the late 80s and grew up watching CSI so it is very hard for me to imagine how could the legal system ID and charge someone. Apparently, they relied on eyewitnesses who had been proved to be quite unreliable or waited for the criminal to make a mistake such as in the Son of Sam case. All this, I’ve learned from reading the Scarpetta series and they have made me curious about other famous cases, such as the Son of Sam. Yes, I’d heard about it. Yes, it is quite common for the Criminal Minds team to mention it, it is even key in some Castle episodes, but I had never done any research. Now, thanks to Scarpetta, I know a little bit about the case which is key for a crime fiction reader like me.
Would I recommend Cruel and Unusual? Yes, although I think the thing with series is that you either start from the first installment, you love it and you work your way up or you just don’t like it. It is necessary to get to know the characters, how they relate to each other and just see them challenged and coming out victorious. Having said that, I started the Jackson Brodie series on the third installment and loved them! But what makes the Scarpetta series so valuable and important for the genre is the portrait of one of the quickest and most remarkable developments in the history of science: from the discovery DNA to our present day need of DNA evidence to legitimately condemn a criminal.