PA­TRI­CIA CORNWEL

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

Crime Scene - - CONTENTS - BY AN­DRE PAINE

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.

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