A cluster of books by five women at the top of their game -- writing about everything from a dead body on board a cargo ship to a murder on the moors. Readers are so polarized on the subject of Patricia Cornwell that reviewing her books is as foolhardy as volunteering to referee a civil war. Cornwell's detractors blame her for the fall of Western Literary Civilization, while her supporters, well, they carry life-size cardboard cutouts of Cornwell with them on vacation (no, I am not making this up). When you scrape away the rhetoric, the debate really boils down to whether or not you can accept Cornwell's protagonist Kay Scarpetta as a heroine. Cornwell's latest book, Black Notice (Putnam, $25.95), is unlikely to win converts to either side.

For Scarpetta fans, Black Notice is good news. It's the best book Cornwell has written in years. It is compelling and well-paced, with a fascinating premise: A dead body is discovered at Richmond, Va.'s deep water terminal, sealed in a Belgium cargo ship container. A French phrase scrawled near the body refers to Loup-Garou, which, as any horror fan worth her salt knows, is fancy talk for "werewolf."

Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta probes the cause of death and helps track the killer. She must also explore whether or not the crime is connected to a series of subsequent Richmond-based murders with similar forensic profiles. Her search takes her overseas to Paris, leading to a trip through high-tech Interpol headquarters that will delight international crime buffs.

Fans of early Cornwell will be glad to know that Scarpetta's basic forensic skills are described in satisfying detail. In addition, there's a new villain who suffers from an intriguing medical condition. Finally, Marino fans will glimpse a deeper side of Scarpetta's sidekick. Indeed, he comes close to stealing the show. Unfortunately, all of the Scarpetta traits that drive Cornwell detractors crazy are out in full force. Scarpetta is infallible, with a reputation for beauty and brilliance that precedes her into every corner of the world; she continues to exhibit all the personal charm of Margaret Thatcher on steroids; she is, as usual, surrounded by petty incompetents out to get her; and she adds femme fatale to her increasingly unbelievable repertoire.

By consistently depicting Scarpetta as a superhuman surrounded by nincompoops, Cornwell stretches the willing suspension of disbelief to the breaking point in Black Notice. An argument for literary feminism cannot be seriously entertained in this instance because once again Cornwell's most despicable characters are women.

Most annoying of all, Scarpetta's interactions with her dysfunctional family reach a fever pitch. In particular, Scarpetta's relationship with her increasingly volatile niece, Lucy, has evolved into something bizarre. It's time to either move on or book the Scarpetta clan on "The Jerry Springer Show."

In short, Black Notice illustrates that Cornwell has the writing skills to produce an excellent book but that Kay Scarpetta's self-absorption is holding her back. When even Scarpetta's grief takes on the proportions of Medea in mourning, her posturing imparts a curious sterility. In the end, while the book purports to explore important human emotions, it too often insists and too seldom evokes.

V.I., P.I.

In contrast, Sara Paretsky's fictional private investigator, V.I.Warshawski, is as serious and dedicated as Kay Scarpetta yet far more likable, thanks to a concern for others that stems from genuine empathy instead of self-righteousness.

Since the first book of the Warshawski series, Sara Paretsky's personal politics have become an increasingly more visible part of her plots. Her latest book, Hard Time (Delacorte, $24.95), is no exception. The story gets going in earnest when V.I. nearly runs over a dying woman lying in the road in one of Chicago's poorer neighborhoods. Warshawski's efforts to obtain rapid medical treatment become fruitless when the woman dies of injuries that prove to have been inflicted by a person rather than by an automobile. When a nasty cop tries to classify the death as a hit-and-run in spite of evidence to the contrary -- and then pin the deed on Warshawski -- V.I. takes a harder look at the incident. The victim turns out to be a prison inmate who formerly worked as a domestic for the head of Chicago's leading private security firm. How did she escape from a prison hundreds of miles away, and why was she back in Chicago?

The plot involves Illinois politics, immigrant subcultures, police corruption and even celebrity worship. Any of these topics could easily have turned the book into a platform for proselytizing, but Paretsky's genuine respect for people of all backgrounds keeps politics from overtaking the plot and enriches the story in a number of ways. For example, the villains are not depicted as evil because they have money or fit some other stereotype; they are revealed as evil by the way they treat other human beings.

Perhaps the biggest factor in the success of Hard Time is Paretsky's unerring eye for capturing both the essences of people and their social positions with a minimum of words. At one point, Warshawski encounters a group of privileged women coaching their children around a private swimming pool, and the reader is introduced to monied offspring named Utah, Madison and Rhiannon. These names alone tell a far larger tale than the few pages devoted to that scene ever could. Scenes involving immigrant children playing on the sidewalks of Chicago's slums ring equally true.

These glimpses into the lives of people who seem so different on the surface, yet who share so much underneath, make Hard Time an engrossing read. Paretsky fans will find the five-year wait for a new Warshawski book well worth it, while readers new to the series will likely enjoy the fast-paced action and plot twists.

Supporting Casts

In order to stand out from the crowd, a mystery protagonist these days needs to have a distinctive personality and a unique operating style. This approach, of course, runs the risk of alienating readers who don't identify with these traits. One way to get around this conundrum is to feature a regular cast of supporting characters. This month, two authors in particular make the most of an ensemble choice.

In Shallow Grave (Scribner, $22), Cynthia Harrod-Eagles enlivens a West London-based British procedural with a wonderful portrait of Detective Inspector Bill Slider and his partner, Jim Atherton. The men could not be more different in personal style, and this contrast adds appeal to the story.

When the wife of a prominent local builder is discovered murdered, her husband is the natural suspect. After all, her body is found in the bottom of a hole dug at his latest job site. But why is the corpse perfectly made-up -- despite having been smothered -- and why do so many local people differ so sharply in their opinions of her? Most say she's a promiscuous maneater who deserved what she got; others paint her as a long-suffering abused wife.

The team of Slider and Atherton must first discover the truth about the victim before they can uncover the truth about her death. Their search is an engrossing trip through the psyches of a small community, one that provides a peek at how personalities in close proximity bring out the best -- and worst -- in each other. They are aided by a supporting cast of police experts, each with a distinct personality.

Shallow Grave's rapid pacing, sharp dialogue, strong storyline and confident writing style should delight lovers of British procedurals on both sides of the Atlantic.

Cold Hit by Linda Fairstein (Scribner, $25) is the author's strongest book yet. Fairstein is Manhattan's assistant district attorney in charge of the Sex Crimes Unit, and her fictional counterpart, Alexandra Cooper, holds a similar position. In Cold Hit, the third of a series, Cooper's relationships with NYPD detectives Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace play a pivotal role.

When the body of an art collector/gallery owner is found in the treacherous waters off the northern tip of Manhattan, Alexandra Cooper is assigned the case in part because the victim was sexually assaulted before being murdered. Working with Chapman and Wallace, Cooper begins to trace the woman's final weeks of life. Unfortunately, each new step in the process reveals yet another unsavory side to the victim's personality, forcing Cooper to balance her growing dislike of the victim with her personal conviction that the dead deserve justice.

Fairstein sprinkles the main story with interesting details of other ongoing cases in the unit, and some effective subplots involving Cooper's personal life. The balance between these elements is much stronger than in previous Cooper novels, with the psychological profiles and motives more believable as well.

What really turns Cold Hit into a winner, however, is the setting. Fairstein takes the reader on an enlightening tour of the art-collecting world, using details from this secretive milieu to add intrigue to the story. It's a great backdrop that is based on substance rather than sensationalism -- a choice that bodes well for future books from Fairstein.

Death and Depth

Elizabeth George sacrifices neither plot nor characterization in her latest outstanding novel, In Pursuit Of The Proper Sinner (Bantam; $25.95). George writes like Agatha Christie at the top of her game, or perhaps P.D. James before she grew tired of the genre.

George's multifaceted depiction of Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley is just one of the many treats in store for mystery lovers who take on the 594-page Proper Sinner. The story of two young people found murdered on the moor -- and the subsequent discovery of their secret lives back in London -- is simply a central plot device that links a series of deeply moving psychological profiles of people from every walk of life. George explores their dreams and fears with a penetrating grace that makes reading the book a joy.

If you are tired of shallow mysteries or crave something with more intellect than usual, put this book on the top of your To Be Read pile. It is a fascinating novel that harks back to the days when authors could explore their characters instead of having to worry about short attention spans and rigid page-count limits. I'm hoping that Proper Sinner becomes a major award winner as well as a national bestseller. Publishers and authors alike could use confirmation that there's still a wide audience out there for weighty mysteries unafraid to take on deeper issues as an integral part of the story.

Katy Munger is the author of seven mystery novels. Her latest is "Money to Burn."