It's fortunate that Cornwell has a new Kay Scarpetta thriller (Black Notice) coming out in July, because this second novel featuring southern police chief Judy Hammer is as disappointing as last year's Hornet's Nest. The problem is elementary. Cornwell, who writes the Scarpetta novels in a first-person voice that blazes with passion and authenticity, lacks control over the third-person narration here. The tone is all over the place, veering from faux-Wambaugh low-jinks to hard-edged suspense, and the plotting is, too. Hammer and her team of deputy chief Virginia West and greenhorn cop Andy Brazil have moved via a federal grant to Richmond, Va., in order to set straight that city's policing. If only they could bring order to the narrative, which twists into an unwieldy welter of subplots. Early on, for instance, Hammer and West misconstrue as malevolent an overheard phone conversation between a local redneck, Butner (Bubba) Fluck IV, and a coon-hunting pal. From there Cornwell spins seriocomic descriptions of Bubba at work, Bubba on a hunting trip, Bubba arguing with a black cop. Among these events and those of other subplots (stymied love between West and Brazil; sabotage of the cops' Web site; the jailing of a police dispatcher; etc.) runs a more dominant plotline--the only one in the novel that exerts dramatic force--about a talented boy artist strong-armed into a gang by a sociopathic teen. There's a lot of broad, often slapstick, social commentary (mostly about class warfare) larded into all the goings-on. If Cornwell's intention is to reproduce with a snicker the chaos of a big southern city, she has succeeded all too well. 1 million first printing; Literary Guild, Mystery Guild and Doubleday Book Club main selections; foreign rights sold in France, Germany, the U.K., Italy and Norway. (Jan. 11). FYI: In May, Putnam will publish Cornwell's first children's book, Life's Little Fable.