Firing guns, flying helicopters, scuba diving in the Bermuda Triangle… Patricia Cornwell has done it all in the name of research for her bestselling books featuring medical examiner Dr Kay Scarpetta. Crime Scene meets the superstar author – and her bodygu
The bestselling author grants Crime Scene an audience to discuss her forensic thrillers.
When Crime Scene meets Patricia Cornwell in London, she’s staying at the Savoy, a reminder that she’s a rare breed of writer: a superstar who’s a household name. Once she’s settled into the chintzy sofa, though, the Floridaborn author is generous with her time. As we discuss her remarkable 27-year writing career while the hotel pianist plays in the background, she radiates Southern charm and is surprisingly modest. “I’m trying to learn how to do all this, you know, I’m working at it,” she says without irony. Like all the best thriller authors, Cornwell’s always competing with herself.
More than a quarter-century after her smash-hit debut, Postmortem, no one can accuse the Bostonbased writer of phoning in her novels featuring medical examiner Dr Kay Scarpetta. The 24th book, Chaos, features drone technology – of course, she’s tried it out for herself – and she continues her obsessive research into Jack The Ripper. Sales of more than 100 million have given Cornwell, 60, the freedom to fund her pet projects and expeditions. From scuba diving in the Bermuda Triangle to digging up dinosaur fossils in the Grand Prairie in Ontario, she clearly relishes the hands-on fieldwork that gives her thrillers a unique authenticity. But huge success has also made her security-conscious. During our interview, Cornwell has bodyguards on hand, though they’re an easygoing double-act – they even request a copy of Crime Scene.
Despite her safety concerns, Cornwell feels at home in the UK. She’s visited London a lot over the years and she’s even thinking of buying a place here in the light of US political developments...
How do you approach the research for your Scarpetta books?
I just always have one rule: she lives in the same world we do. So whatever we are experiencing in terms of proliferation of technology, or what’s going on socially, politically, violence-wise or with terrorism, that has to be the same world she inhabits. You have to study what will be used as weapons, what she will be up against and what tools can she implement today that she didn’t have when this all started.
Postmortem [ 1990] showcased DNA and I was probably the first person to ever do it. Well, that technology has been out there for so long. So, what’s next? Anything that can be used as technology is also capable of being used for a weapon. I will just say that when I get with consultants, I try to design weapons that aren’t easy to imitate. I don’t want to make it really easy for someone to do something terrible!
Is it tough living in Scarpetta’s world?
Most things she makes me do are pretty horrific. Going to the body farm is not fun, going to autopsies is not fun. I’ve had to dig up graves on an archaeology site. I’ve had to do things like bite into a piece of raw chicken and then leave it sitting for a while. I’m talking about post-mortem injuries, to see how long would it take for that bite mark to go away if you did that on dead flesh. Of course, you wash your mouth with antibacterial soap really fast. For Jack the Ripper, I was buying a lot of different antique weapons, wrapping up big pieces of meat, and trying them out to see what works better for the types of crimes. It’s just trying it on for size without being dangerous.
Was writing the slow-burn suspense of Chaos a challenge?
All of them are a challenge for different reasons. Because the series has been around for so long, the big challenge is to immediately identify who everybody is, considering that the [ reader] may have never read any of the other books. That takes a lot of very strategic thought to figure out how do I get you to know who these people are without having some really boring exposition. So the beginning is always the hardest part for me – it’s how to get you into it and get you up to speed without you knowing that I’m doing it.
How did you find working with drones?
I’m not a big fan because they’re very dangerous. I’m a helicopter pilot and I don’t really want to be flying anywhere where there might be drones trying to get close and film you. If they hit your tail rotor, come through your windscreen or get ingested by your engine, you could be dead. So I’m not a big fan of drones. You’re walking through a park, and then you hear this noise like a humongous mosquito.
After 24 books, you’re still fascinated by Scarpetta, aren’t you?
I am, because the world she inhabits is never dull to me and it changes constantly. I inadvertently created a genre, this forensic thriller genre. It gives me a huge opportunity for longevity because it changes faster than I can even keep up with it. I still love it all and I care a great deal about my readers too, so it’s still fun.
You covered crime as a reporter and worked for the medical examiner in Virginia. Why are you drawn to death?
I know, I’m a weirdo! I don’t know why I do all this. When I did my first trip to the morgue I said, “Well, when can I come back?”. I worked my way into getting a job. I worked six years, I saw thousands of autopsies, and even then I didn’t feel quite equipped to walk in Scarpetta’s shoes.
Is it annoying that you created the forensic genre, but shows like CSI ended up on screen rather than Scarpetta?
What bugs me about it is I was so smug and stupid that I never saw it coming. I cornered the market on all things forensics for the better part of the 1990s, and I didn’t hear the hoofbeats coming up behind me. Scarpetta was tied up in movie options, so it wasn’t available. It never dawned on me that TV was going to do that. I wish we’d thought of it first. I was a little jealous.
But what you’ve got to then figure out is: how do I keep this story interesting and fresh? Especially when people come up and say “Do you get your ideas from CSI?” I say no! The focus in the books has become much more character driven, much more high-tech stuff that’s not the typical thing that you see in crime labs.
After many false starts, is Scarpetta finally going to reach the big screen?
I think it’s going to happen. The first option for Scarpetta was 1989, can you believe that? I wish I were a great screenwriter and I could have just done this myself. But I think we finally have somebody [ Carol screenwriter Phyllis Nagy], and if anybody could pull this off I think she probably could. They want original stories, and that’s okay. So what I’ll tell my fans is, you’ll get both – you’ll get my original books and you’ll get an original story in the movie.
Can you remember writing Postmortem in the ’80s?
I remember it like yesterday because I was sitting in this crappy little office I had that overlooked the parking lot. It was a cheap apartment that was outside of Richmond [ Virginia], and I faced a wall because I had no view. I would come home from the morgue and I would work until like midnight, I would work on weekends and work on holidays. I felt like I started finding my voice in Postmortem. I don’t think it’s my best, but I think that it was a very important book, because without my realising it started something brand new. And it was controversial. The one really important bookstore in Richmond banned it for being too graphic and violent.
P.D. James was an influence, wasn’t she?
When I was struggling [ writing] the first three books that nobody wanted, I actually wrote her a letter and sent the first chapter. Well, believe it or not, she sent it back and said “I can’t look at this but you should keep trying”. I actually had several letters back and forth with her. When I finally got published, I went to see her at a big event she was doing, and I waited in line to finally go up and say hello to her. And she didn’t know who I was! She probably had thousands of writers writing her letters like that. But I did thank her for bothering to answer me, because nobody else did.
But you don’t write mysteries, do you?
No, they’re not mysteries. You can’t call a dead body on a table a mystery. That was the big thing I became adamant about from day one: I will never trivialise it, I will never turn it into a game.
Finally, what can you tell us about the 25th Scarpetta novel?
I will tell you that Scarpetta’s just back from Interpol and Scotland Yard – she’s been here [ in London] and in France – and she’s just getting home to Massachusetts when something really bad happens…
Chaos (Harpercollins) and Ripper: The Secret Life Of Walter Sickert (Thomas & Mercer) are out now.
No, they’re not mysteries. You can’t call a dead body on a table a mystery
Cornwell makes a point of experiencing Scarpetta’s world from the inside.
Her hands-on fieldwork gives Cornwell’s thrillers a unique authenticity.