Unnatural Exposure

by Patricia Cornwell

(very good; top 50% of SciThri)

Year published: 1997
Category: medical thriller; science thriller; mystery; series

Tech rating (out of 5):

SUMMARY {from the jacket flap}:

Virginia’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, is trapped in a nightmare of unsolved murders and a pernicious virus, elusive clues, and a killer’s threats hurled through cyberspace.


Unnatural Exposure is part of one of the most popular mystery/thriller series of all time, the Kay Scarpetta stories by Patricia Cornwell. It also happens to be the only one I have read, as I’m not a mystery fan. But this book fits the bill for sciencethrillers.com: Dr. Scarpetta is a pathologist and the author uses real forensic science and medicine in her story. Importantly, Unnatural Exposure also involves a mysterious smallpox-like virus, which always gets my attention.

The plot itself is fairly thin; most of the tension in the book comes from personal issues and conflicts in Kay’s life (a widow, she currently has a messed-up love life, a lesbian niece facing discrimination in the FBI, too much responsibility at work, etc.). The basic storyline: a serial killer in Ireland murders and dismembers his victims. Years later, a dismembered torso is found in a Virginia landfill and Kay is called in to do the autopsy. The headless body appears to have shingles, a viral disease that manifests as a patterned skin rash. The killer sends Kay disturbing and later, threatening, photos and messages by email. Then, on an isolated fishing island off the coast an old woman is found dead of a poxvirus. Kay investigates and gets quarantined…and it goes on from there. Honestly, I didn’t get the ending; maybe you have to read the books that came before.

A decent mystery/forensic thriller overall with detailed and accurate medical stuff (autopsy, microscopic pathology, electron microscopy, viruses), but I personally didn’t like Kay. She’s smart but sort of bitter and messed up, a kind of lonely aging women’s libber who sees the world through the eyes of a 70’s professional woman. Her character feels dated, as does the computer technology used in this book.

If you like this kind of book, read:
Deja Dead
by Kathy Reichs; in my opinion, it’s much, much better (though it doesn’t have the infectious disease sub-plot).

One of many books in the bestselling Kay Scarpetta series of mysteries by Patricia Cornwell

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