Patricia Cornwell tells Crime Scene why her books are at the forefront of forensic science and tech, from DNA and drones to Jack The Ripper
The US author gives Crime Scene a glimpse of her new book on Jack The Ripper.
When Patricia Cornwell visited the University of Leicester on her recent book tour, she did it in style. The US author donned a Leicester City F.C. shirt and scarf for her lecture – you can see the sartorial evidence on the university’s Youtube channel – as it turns out that the academic institution was fundamental in the creation of her iconic character, Dr Kay Scarpetta.
“It’s where DNA fingerprinting was discovered and invented,” Cornwell tells Crime Scene. “So that’s a really big deal in my profession, because I heard about that the very first time I went to see a morgue in 1984. This medical examiner said, ‘there’s this new technology called DNA’.”
During that trip to a Virginia morgue, Cornwell first saw the potential of forensic science and DNA for crime fiction. She cornered the market in forensic science thrillers during the ’90s and remains a global bestseller. Cornwell’s 24th Scarpetta novel, Chaos, sees her heroine facing a new threat: drone technology.
“It’s like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, isn’t it?” Cornwell reasons. “When you’re walking along and you might hear that thing coming at you.”
Although Cornwell’s books show the sinister side of new technology, she reveals that forensic and digital developments have also made her revisit an old case – Jack The Ripper. She spent millions researching her bestselling and controversial 2002 book, Portrait Of A Killer, which identified artist Walter Sickert as the Ripper. In an accompanying BBC documentary, she toured the Whitechapel murder sites and even tested out different knives on animal organs, to try and work out Jack’s method.
Cornwell concluded the film by saying that she wanted her life back. However, 15 years on, she’s stalking the Victorian murderer once more, via a new book, entitled Ripper: The Secret Life Of Walter Sickert.
“It is the book I should have written the first time – and it is a remake, it’s not a revision,” she tells Crime Scene. “I feel even more sure of myself in this theory than I ever did.”
While not everyone appreciated an American author coming over here and ‘solving’ the murders from 1888, Cornwell says that she’s since become friends with some of the Ripperologists.
“We’ve actually combined resources,” Cornwell reveals, “I even hired a few of them to do record searches for me, to send me documents.”
Digital technology will also inform this version of the book, which is being produced with Amazon.
“We’re doing a really high-tech electronic version that’s going to have hundreds of images embedded in it,” says Cornwell. “I’m turning some of my evidence over to the reader. I’m going to show you photographs you’ve never seen before in this case, because I have things that other people don’t.
“If I tell you about the murder of Emily Dimmock in 1907 [ an unsolved killing that inspired several Sickert paintings], I’m going to be the first person to show you her picture in the coffin with her throat cut. I own it, no one’s ever seen it before. If it’s Mary Kelly [ widely regarded as the final Ripper victim], I’m going to show you a picture taken at that time that I bet you you’ve never seen before.”
Cornwell also dismissed Russell Edwards’ 2014 theory that the killer was a 23-year-old Polish immigrant named Aaron Kosminski. The theory was based on DNA evidence from a bloodstained shawl that supposedly belonged to a victim.
“I don’t believe that for one minute,” says Cornwell. “The original crime scene sketch of Catherine Eddowes does not include a shawl – she’s not wearing one.”
Cornwell is hopeful of looking again at the DNA contained on the ‘Ripper letters’ by drawing on the techniques that the University of Leicester employed for Richard III’S remains.
“I have been talking to them because they are the best and the brightest,” she says of her discussions with Dr Turi King ( pictured, top) and her team. “Technology’s not the same as it was back then, so I’m picking their brains.”
While the first book was written in 18 months, Cornwell’s since had time to go much deeper into the Ripper case.
“When I did this the first time it really mattered to me a lot that people believed what I said about him,” she says. “What matters to me now is that this is the best I can do – I believe it. So just take a look at it. You might find it interesting, but you don’t have to believe it.”
“I’M GOING TO SHOW YOU PHOTOGRAPHS YOU’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE IN THIS CASE, BECAUSE I HAVE THINGS THAT OTHER PEOPLE DON’T”