Queen of forensic fiction

Weinman writes the Dark Passages column at

Patricia Cornwell’s name comes with more than a whiff of myth and expectation. Almost every woman writing thrillers with extreme violence gets compared to Cornwell’s bestselling work featuring forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta. Interviews focus less on the books and more on Cornwell’s Armani suits, personal security concerns or her obsession with solving the Jack the Ripper murders. And the publishing industry’s current grim fortunes lend an air of urgency to last week’s publication of “Scarpetta.”

The Cornwell I meet in her Midtown Manhattan penthouse is candid but firmly in control of the conversation. She is less about myth and more about reflection -- on the economy, her 2005 marriage to Staci Gruber, a Harvard neuroscientist, jettisoning artifice in favor of honesty and her career arc. Twenty years ago, Cornwell, now 52, wrote the final words on what would become “Postmortem” (1990). The novel was published by Scribner with a modest first printing and advance (6,000 copies and $6,000, respectively) that came just when Cornwell was about to give up on writing fiction. Rereading “Postmortem” and immediate sequels reminded me why Cornwell was showered with virtually every major mystery award at the time: Scarpetta’s first-person viewpoint lends an intimacy to the serial killing horrors she observes as Virginia’s chief medical examiner (in real life, Cornwell once worked as a technical writer and computer analyst in that office), a profession rarely at the forefront of crime fiction at the time. “It was unlike anything we’d ever read before,” remembers Richard Goldman, who, with Mary Alice Gorman, owns the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pa., and who was an early champion of Cornwell’s work. “There had been autopsies in detective fiction and police procedurals, but they were just one of the elements, a sideshow. It was fresh and exciting to see the medical examiner at the center of the story.”

Getting back

As Cornwell became more successful, her books changed, and not always for the better. Starting with “The Last Precinct” (2000), the first-person vantage point gave way to multiple and more omniscient perspectives that opened up the narrative but removed the jolt of immediacy for the reader. Kay’s motivations for getting involved in a case became more opaque as she changed from a regional medical examiner into a nationally sought-after star of almost superheroic proportions. And even though the forensic techniques stayed on the side of realism, a direct counterpoint to the “CSI"-style fantasy forensics that continue to feed public appetite for the subject, minute detail too often overwhelmed character and plot development. Even Cornwell recognized something had to change after a friend from college pointed out that he found the characters unlikable.


Cornwell views “Scarpetta” as something of a reset button on the series, a newfound attempt to rediscover what makes her characters tick and interact with each other within a less violent framework. The book’s focus on reluctant celebrity and the downside of being a public figure, however, seems to suggest Cornwell still grapples with how to improve as a writer (she cited Hemingway and the script for “Amadeus” as especially helpful from a craft standpoint) when her brand-name status squeezes available writing time and, more unusually for a crime writer, benefits real-life forensic practice.

In recent years Cornwell has lent her name to more philanthropic pursuits on the criminal justice front out of concern about the state of forensic science in the country. She co-founded the Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine in 1999, though she’s no longer involved because “they don’t really need my help anymore.” She’s still involved with the National Forensic Academy in Tennessee and in the last year donated $1 million each to the Harvard Art Museum for a conservation scientist position and to John Jay College of Criminal Justice for a crime scene investigation academy.

“I do admire her for recognizing the increasing public awareness for forensic science and putting money out there,” said Jan Burke, author of the Irene Kelly novels and founder of the Crime Lab Project, a nonprofit forensic science awareness program. “Not everyone does, and it was a wonderful thing for [Cornwell] to do. There are a lot of writers who make use of forensic scientists -- they come through, ask a bunch of questions of overworked people -- and then don’t do a thing to help them out.”

Cornwell will be meeting with John Jay officials later this month and believes the direction of the program, delayedfrom a fall launch until a director is hired, is not yet set in stone. “It may not be a bona fide academy, but a consortium offering all sorts of training, conferences and other things in conjunction with the criminal justice community. And with the state of the economy, plans are going to change. You couldn’t possibly establish a long-running academy with a million dollars. We might have to scale this down. It’s a very different landscape than it was even a year ago when I made my first contribution.”

But when comments Cornwell made to the Associated Press about sloppiness at crime scenes were taken out of context, she took out full-page newspaper ads as a “pre-emptive strike,” to the tune of $250,000. “It was an unfortunate investment, but I had to make it and I would do it all over again. I’m not faulting the reporter; it was simply a situation where what I was really talking about what citizens were doing at crime scenes, and it was interpreted as me making fun of [law enforcement]. I did not and do not, ever, want anyone in law enforcement to think I am judging them.”

Jack and Kay

She is still very much judged on “Portrait of a Killer” (2002), the controversial attempt to prove that British artist Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. Cornwell admits she is sometimes bored with the subject (“If I’d known I would spend eight years on this I wouldn’t have gotten involved, but I didn’t pick this case, it picked me.”), but with the copyright on Sickert’s letters set to expire in 2012, she will update and revise “Portrait” “because I have to sail this ship to the end. You can’t jump off. I will finish this job because it’s the right thing to do.”

Cornwell is already at work on the next Scarpetta novel, but because she has associated herself so closely with real-life justice as much as the fictional kind, I wonder whether she sees a future more directed toward public policy than writing fiction. “When it comes to the real decision-makers about criminal justice I don’t think their first thought is what Patricia Cornwell has to say. I wish that were true. They might wonder what Scarpetta might say . . . but to answer your question, if somebody asked me to do something that made a huge difference I’d have to really think about that. I feel a certain social responsibility in general, but I can do more good by being me and doing what I do well and letting other people be involved in the policymaking, the politics of it.”