By Gene Lyons
Updated August 04, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

If the United States has no monopoly on mass murderers, we certainly lead the world in books about them. Indeed, one can scarcely imagine the paltry state to which the domestic-thriller industry would be reduced without the occasional homicidal rampage to inspire it. Reading From Potter’s Field, the sixth in Patricia Cornwell’s highly successful series of novels about Virginia medical examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta, however, one would sure like to give it a try.

Oh, for a cunningly planned murder of the ordinary sort upon which Scarpetta might exercise her formidable skills as a forensic pathologist. A murder motivated, that is, by recognizable human passions: lust, greed, envy, jealousy, or the need to hide some terrible secret. Alas, Cornwell has turned away from the cleverly plotted mysteries her heroine used to solve with such grisly exactitude and toward the more grandiose but predictable psychopath-on-the-loose theme. And the problem is that Scarpetta’s archnemesis, Temple Gault — he’s identified from the first page — simply isn’t convincing or scary enough to carry the novel.

Anyhow, it’s Christmas Eve in Richmond when Scarpetta and her ubiquitous sidekick Capt. Pete Marino get a summons from the FBI. Gault has struck again in Manhattan’s Central Park. Now, exactly why the NYPD, transit police, and federal investigators need helpers from Virginia isn’t clear. Marino’s boss objects, but Scarpetta cuts him short. ”When violence occurs anywhere,” she scolds, ”it is everybody’s problem…. No matter where your precinct or department is.” So, off they go to New York City, the official rationale being that Scarpetta and Marino are consultants to the FBI.

Not only has the fiendish Gault somehow managed to get into the FBI’s vaunted computer database — where he sends mocking E-mail to his pursuers — he’s also gotten hold of Scarpetta’s American Express card, and is living high at the pathologist’s expense. What’s more, no sooner does Scarpetta get back to the office in Virginia than an unexpected corpse turns up on her autopsy table. It soon becomes clear that Gault is stalking both her and her beloved niece Lucy, the brilliant University of Virginia undergraduate who wrote the FBI software he’s penetrated.

Lucy’s presence gives lovable curmudgeon Marino another chance to make his trademark antigay remarks, and for Scarpetta to scold him too. Other familiar themes return as well. Scarpetta’s still feeling guilty about her sick mother in Miami, still irritated with her flighty sister, and still carrying on with her married FBI lover — although it makes her feel worse than ever.

What’s more, now that Scarpetta has evolved from a forensic investigator to an action-adventure heroine, the strain of spending hours in the morgue is beginning to get to her. ”A day never went by when a memory wasn’t triggered,” she admits. ”I would see a face bloated by injury and death, a body in bondage…suffering and annihilation in unbearable detail, for nothing was hidden from me.” Maybe it’s time Cornwell thought about giving her a vacation. B-