By Gene Lyons
September 09, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Body Farm

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Funny, but Dr. Kay Scarpetta would have been just about the last fictional sleuth you’d expect to go Hollywood. To evolve, that is, from the brisk, no- nonsense protagonist of Postmortem and Body of Evidence-earlier novels in Patricia Cornwell’s highly successful series about the Virginia medical examiner with a knack for solving homicides-into the beleaguered heroine of a cinematic thriller with a mystery plot so predictable that the killer all but wears a sign. Not that The Body Farm (Scribner, $23) is a bad example of the proto-screenplay school of crime novel one sees so often of late, in which all fictive roads converge near the end in a melodramatic shoot-out. But it will come as something of a letdown for mystery readers appreciative of Scarpetta’s shrewdly realistic, if sometimes grisly, deductions at the autopsy table.

On loan to the FBI from her permanent gig in Virginia, Scarpetta and her oafish sidekick Capt. Pete Marino of the Richmond Police Department are summoned to North Carolina to look into the case of a little girl slain in a manner reminiscent of the style of an escaped serial killer with whom they’ve tangled before. Marino himself has no doubt that their brilliant, blue-eyed nemesis, Temple Gault, has struck again. Dr. Scarpetta, on the other hand, has her doubts. Judging by photographs, she’s certain that some of the child’s wounds appear to have been inflicted after death, perhaps by a killer who learned Gault’s trademark style from People magazine or a made-for-TV movie. At the risk of alienating the local doctor who did the original autopsy and ^ breaking the heart of the victim’s mother-a lovely young thing who’s caught Marino’s jaded eye-Scarpetta wants the body exhumed.

Meanwhile, Kay has a romantic entanglement of her own to sort out, and alas, the gentleman is married. Things get heated enough to tempt Cornwell into some uncharacteristically awful prose. ”Our male and female pieces,” Scarpetta gushes at one point, ”had interlocked in a manner unparalleled and unfamiliar.” Nothing kinky, mind you. That’s just a medical examiner’s way of saying she’d found a gentle lover.

Oh well, these things are apt to happen to any novelist fortunate enough to create a successful series. And even at her worst, Cornwell’s still clever enough to keep readers turning those pages. B

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