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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.

Pic­ture: Stu­art Clarke

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