December 01, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Dr. Kay Scarpetta, chief medical examiner of Virginia, has been a chilly little star of the mystery-thriller genre since her debut a decade ago. Disciplined, brilliant, and humorless, the doctor-lawyer heroine of Patricia Cornwell’s series returns in her 11th book, The Last Precinct, and she’s uncharacteristically, and refreshingly, out of control.

It’s as if the series itself were having a midlife crisis, eager to mix things up — by royally rattling its fortysomething stoic. Where Cornwell’s past novels have relied on twisty serial killers or startling character deaths for their thrills, Precinct picks up rather dreamily where last year’s Black Notice left off. Scarpetta has just been attacked in her home by (and it’s a tribute to Cornwell’s starkly sincere writing that this isn’t as howlingly silly as it sounds) Jean-Baptiste Chandonne, or The Werewolf, as he calls himself, in reference to a rare medical disorder that covers him in fur. Chandonne has viciously battered and bitten to death a slew of women — one of whom was Scarpetta’s nemesis, scheming policewoman Diane Bray.

Cue action? Not really. More like cue reaction, specifically the deeply private Scarpetta’s reaction to being ”processed” for trial. Lab technicians tromp through her home (it’s now a crime scene), prosecutors mock her secrets (she trysted with a younger cop who’s on the case), and attorneys question her stability as a witness (she’s still reeling from the murder of her FBI boyfriend). The good doctor isn’t game: ”I may as well be a naked body on one of my own steel tables in the morgue.” Then, upping the insult, Scarpetta suddenly finds herself under grand-jury investigation for Bray’s murder. That’s when things really go to hell.

Cornwell has always excelled at describing the dirty details of medicine and detective work — she can write engagingly for pages on techniques for reading blood splatter — and the story whirls along with occasionally unlikely subplots involving the drug trade, torturous murders, and the Wolfman and his pack. But these bloody intrigues are less interesting than the unraveling of Scarpetta. Pushing 50, she swills Scotch and lusts for cigarettes, lashes out, then sulkily retreats. She slips into her past and pokes at her own wounds. She is, finally, losing her cool — and it’s a truly enjoyable jolt.

Which is a heck of a lot more than can be said for James Patterson’s Roses Are Red, which hauls back Alex Cross (played by Morgan Freeman in 1997’s Kiss the Girls) in all his improbable perfection. Cross, a D.C. detective and FBI liaison, is working on a series of bank-robbery murders coordinated by a loon calling himself the Mastermind — who, as is typical of a Patterson villain, becomes unwholesomely obsessed with Cross.

But Cross has problems of his own, revolving, alas dear reader, around his cereal-commercial-cute family. His motherless moppety children, Damon and Jannie, are enjoying their evening boxing lesson with Dad when Jannie is struck with the first of several mysterious seizures. This leads to many scenes in the hospital in which his sunny kids keep thinkin’ about tomorrow and Cross muses about mortality (”What if this was our last sunrise together?”). You’ll need paint stripper to remove the syrup. Cross is also dealing with his jittery fiancée, Christine, who gave birth to his son while held captive by, ahem, the Weasel (in last year’s Pop Goes the Weasel) and is now suffering from mental problems while juggling work and family.

After dealing readers this lame-duck plot, and the sticky prose that goes with it, Patterson tries to goose the excitement by artificial means. Like dicing his book into 126 chapters. And making heavy use of italics as a dramatic device. And, most insultingly, dishing out titillating, sexually charged descriptions of the murders and violations of several women. Through it all, Cross remains an exhaustingly predictable character: He plays the piano when he gets sad, marvels at the wisdom of his sassy Black Pride grandmother, a.k.a. Nana Mama, and wonders if he should give up ”the Job.” We know, we know. (Or we know, we know, as the author would have it.) In the last chapter, Patterson lets loose a thunk of a revelation that will change the entire nature of the series. But unless he makes some changes to Cross, it won’t be of interest. Precinct: B+ Roses: D+

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