JANE CORNWELL meets PATRICIA CORNWELL CRIME WRITER
PEOPLE sometimes confuse Patricia Cornwell with her fictional heroine, the whip- smart forensic pathologist Dr Kay Scarpetta. Granted, the two share certain similarities: both are compact and slender, blonde and blue- eyed, fiercely determined and dedicated — sometimes obsessively — to their work. Both are at home in a morgue, on a rifle range, in a helicopter. And at just over 50 years of age, both are a little more mellow, a little more settled.
‘‘ Things don’t bother me as much as they used to,’’ says Cornwell, straight- backed in jeans and mock- croc boots amid the chintz of London’s Dorchester hotel, where three burly security guards are keeping watch outside the door. ‘‘ I couldn’t deal with fame at first,’’ she offers, reflecting on her leap from the chief medical examiner’s office in Richmond, Virginia, where she worked in the IT department, to becoming a multi- million selling author known to airport users everywhere. ‘‘ I’ve calmed down a lot over the past five years or so.’’ She pauses, smiles. ‘‘ I’ve realised that fame isn’t about who you really are.’’
Her latest novel, Book of the Dead , is the 15th in a series that started with 1990’ s acclaimed Post Mortem . Scarpetta, too, seems calmer: having opened her own private practice in Charleston, South Carolina, she even gets engaged to longtime boyfriend Benton Wesley ( resurrected from the dead a few books back). The murders, by a serial killer nicknamed Sandman, are as gruesome as ever; regulars including Lucy ( her Ferrari- driving, helicopter- piloting niece) and Marino ( her brutish ex- cop- turned- biker sidekick) help and hinder investigations. Advances in technology and forensics speed the book towards its unexpected denouement.
‘‘ I’ve always kept up with the latest developments,’’ Cornwell says. ‘‘ It’s important to reflect them in your work. Our world is more hi- tech. Spying seems to be a favourite pastime in the States now,’’ she adds wryly. ‘‘ But I really set out to do more with the relationship ( between Scarpetta and Wesley) this time. So there’s a lot more of the human factor, of the ways in which the characters relate to each other, of the psychology behind their actions. For me just writing about forensic medicine and science becomes very sterile.’’
It was Cornwell who first popularised a genre now commonly plundered by crime writers and makers of such television shows as CSI . Miamiborn ( like Scarpetta) and North Carolina- raised, the young Patricia Daniels variously suffered an absent father, a clinically depressed mother, child abuse and anorexia before marrying her college professor, Charles Cornwell ( they divorced in 1989) and starting her working life as a crime reporter on The Charlotte Observer . Along the way she was mentored by her neighbour, Ruth Graham — wife of evangelist Billy — who gave her a journal and encouraged her to write.
‘‘ It all came together early on. They would cordon off a crime scene and you’d see forensic pathologists in the distance, being very secretive, accompanying the body on a stretcher. I would always wonder, ‘ Where has it gone? What do they do with it?’ So I wanted to know that side of it.’’
Cornwell visited her first morgue in 1984 ( after which she worked in the Virginia medical examiner’s office for six years). ‘‘ I sat down with a brilliant forensic pathologist, a woman, who talked about what they looked for in autopsies and showed me photographs and told me about DNA, which I’d never heard of.
‘‘ I thought, ‘ this is what I want to do’. But when I wrote Post Mortem I got these rejection letters that said, ‘ nobody wants to read about morgues or labs’.’’ She flashes a grin. ‘‘ Ain’t that funny?’’ she says. ‘‘ My only regret in terms of how this has all escalated is that unfortunately people believe what they see on TV.
‘‘ We’re having serious problems in the States right now because people are collecting the evidence at crime scenes themselves. The cops will get to the door and they hand everything to them in ( plastic) baggies, or they’ll have touched everything because they think fingerprinting doesn’t matter any more. You get jurors who make decisions based on what Star Trek - ian things they’ve watched that week.’’
A director of applied forensic science at the National Forensic Academy and a regular visitor to morgues, police stations and forensic psychiatric hospitals, Cornwell is involved in campaigns to counter such collective gullibility.
‘‘ In my own way I really live in the world I write about. I have never stopped associating with the people in those worlds and if I can help in any way, I do. I almost feel like one of them; we hang out, enjoy a joke. I’ve ridden with police for over two decades now’’— Cornwell was a volunteer city cop for six years, early on — ‘‘ and they have a very peculiar, very whacky sense of humour.’’
Cornwell feels compelled to visit morgues, partly for the sake of her work, partly because she finds it so hard to switch off. Accompanying her partner on a recent business trip to Cape Town, she enjoyed two days in the sun before hotfooting it to the local mortuary. ‘‘ I can never go anywhere and not do something,’’ she says. ‘‘ Anyway, if I don’t visit with the dead I have no right to expect them to talk to me when I write my books.’’
These days, with her superstardom, she’s grown circumspect, cautious. There have been weird fans. Cyber- stalkers. ‘‘ I’ve always had security, but I’m more vigilant now because we live in a more dangerous world. Someone saying inflammatory things about you on the internet might give people ideas. So it’s a matter of being smart. I would never, for example, do a book signing and have a crowd of 1000 people without security. You don’t know what you deter because you can’t measure that.’’
Cornwell is happy, however, with life. With her work, campaigns and philanthropy ( she is prone to random acts of kindness: paying for college fees, say, or a hospital bed). A diagnosis of bipolar disorder a few years ago came as a relief. ‘‘ Psychiatry and medicine are more adept at dealing with things now. Now I know why I didn’t handle things so well in the past. Finally I’m on a mood stabiliser that suits me.’’
She gazes out the window towards Hyde Park. ‘‘ I’m in a good place now,’’ she says. ‘‘ A good place,’’ she repeats. Then stands to shake my hand firmly, three times. Just as Scarpetta might.