February 03, 1997 12:00 PM

by Patricia Cornwell

The symbol of Charlotte, N.C., is a hornet’s nest, and crime’s queen bee, Cornwell, gives unintentionally added meaning to that image in this rambling procedural involving the city’s police force. Hovering around the nest is the department’s tough-as-nails chief Judy Hammer, unhappily married to a suicidal overeater. She battles the city fathers, who bend crime stats to make Charlotte more appealing to conventioneers. Equally tough (but beautiful) deputy chief Virginia West tracks a serial killer who lacks civic pride: He’s murdering visiting businessmen. Handsome but wussy crime reporter Andy Brazil wants to get the story and West, sort of. In seven previous bestsellers, former medical examiner Cornwell’s plucky heroine, coroner Kay Scarpetta, sliced, diced and convinced with the best in crime fiction. Here, without Scarpetta, Cornwell’s research shows at the seams, and the characters’ emotional lives seem unreal. For one thing, Cornwell’s Charlotte is suffering a serious testosterone deficit. Never have so many wimpy males inhabited one town. Then there’s the dialogue—straight from an antacid ad. Says Hammer to a female DA: “Both of us are busy professionals with crushing schedules and responsibilities.” Oh, boy. With flaws like this it’s unlikely that Hornet’s Nest will create the usual Cornwell buzz. (Putnam, $25.99)

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