Relationships, not forensic procedures, are crime writer Patricia Cornwell's passion these days, and psychology is her muse.
At age 52, 20 years after she wrote the first of 16 bestselling novels about medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, Cornwell is introspective about herself and the series' characters. Her last two books, Book of the Dead and Scarpetta, put her characters under a microscope, and it wasn't always pretty.
"I have other things I want to say, about what inspires them, haunts them, what it feels like in a world where as you get older it changes in nanoseconds," she says.
The life of this consummate storyteller is lore among her fans, and at this ripening of her protagonist, she has warmed to the subject of her own journey. In a lively phone interview from a Miami area hotel where she was "recharging her batteries,'' she talks about the power of tenacity.
Cornwell, who was turned down by six graduate schools, stresses that she is not a scientist like Scarpetta: "I'm a writer, an artist.'' Yet she has a scientific aptitude that translates esoteric and tedious concepts, she says: "That's the way my brain works." Add emotion and imagination, and a Scarpetta novel is born.
Except when imagination isn't enough.
Cornwell likes to experience what she writes about in what she calls her "nonfiction novels.'' "I smell it, taste it. . . . I go absorb it," she says. If she writes about a bomb squad in New York City, for example, "I want to see the gear . . . do whatever they will let me do.''
She calls the 1990s, when the popularity of her novels began to grow, a "golden era'' for enlightenment and economic stability when 10 pages of arson investigation detail would be well-received.
Times are different now. "People are scared, depressed,'' she says, and they devour reality TV and minutiae. "They want something reassuring, about relationships, not gore and procedures.''
Always lively and complex, Cornwell's characters in her last two Scarpetta novels have spun into dysfunction and then eased into reconciliation in plots more psychologically traumatic than usual. Her new book, Scarpetta, picks the characters up after the dark Book of the Dead left them reeling. In earlier fiction, she moved the plot forward in a linear way, but now, in her books as in her life, analysis is more prevalent. "I analyze myself vigorously.''
And she invites analysis from others. After the rejection of her third mystery featuring detective Joe Constable (she laughs at the name now), Cornwell, a reporter turned morgue computer analyst and volunteer police officer, called Mysterious Press editor Sara Ann Freed. Freed urged her to ditch Constable for a minor character, the female medical examiner, saying: "That's who I want to spend time with.''
Cornwell incorporated the randomness and cruelty she saw in the morgue while taking notations during autopsies into Postmortem, her first Scarpetta novel. "I had to open up my protective barriers and enter that creative airspace," she says. "Postmortem terrified people.''
The book came out in 1990. "The world was ready for this,'' she says of the details of criminal investigation, which became a "massive obsession'' in pop culture, spawning forensic shows that she watches only if they are character driven.
In the beginning
As a youngster, Cornwell came from a broken home in Miami to conservative Montreat, N.C., where a divorced person like her mom was a rarity. There she met her mentor, the late Ruth Bell Graham, evangelist Billy Graham's wife, who helped shape her own spirituality.
"Real spirituality is humbling,'' she says. "Ruth was very much that way — open, enlightened, would invite anyone in.''
She thought her biography of Mrs. Graham would launch her as an author, so she quit her reporting job at 24 to write fiction and work in a morgue temporarily, to quench her fascination about what happens to bodies after they leave crime scenes. She was in the morgue six years.
Cornwell recalls Mrs. Graham would call up and, without saying hello, order: "Get out of the morgue.'' But Cornwell persevered there until her first novel sold: "I've never understood that I can't do what I set out to do.''
Cornwell married Dr. Staci Gruber, a neuroscientist, in 2006 in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage is legal. She would like more states to follow suit but does not want to be an activist on the issue: "It's not who I am.''
But she will speak up when asked about it, because with celebrity comes responsibility. "If you don't step forward when you represent a group of people, you're perpetuating what needs to be changed.
"Life is not a morality play," she says. "We don't need to treat people different from us as someone less than us.''
Living as a lesbian gives her a unique form of empathy, she says: "I know what it feels like to be criticized, attacked and judged.''
Cornwell met Gruber in 2004 while researching what she sees as crime investigation's new frontier: the brain. "I was curious as to why do people do what they do,'' Cornwell says. She dove into neurological studies of serial killers. "Scarpetta is at a stage in her life where she's asking, 'Why?' That brings us to neurology."
Looking back, ahead
Even as she plans the direction of the next Scarpetta book, her previous work ripples. Within two years, a revision is planned on Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed, her nonfiction book investigating London's Jack the Ripper serial murders that points the finger at artist Walter Sickert. Researchers and historians are helping her track down documents to clarify and respond to critics about the theories in the book. "That's the nature of nonfiction,'' she says.
So far, the efforts have found "nothing that refutes my basic theory.'' The project has been in her life since 2001: "That's being a journalist. You don't know until you quit looking.''
Her novellas At Risk and The Front, featuring a newer character, state police investigator Win Garano, are to air as Lifetime movies in the fall, she says.
And then there's the big screen. "There has been chatter about Scarpetta and Hollywood since 1990,'' Cornwell says. But every effort stalled: "It's bizarre." She even lived in Los Angeles for a while, but deadlines passed and the screenplays weren't what studios wanted, she says. "It will happen when it's supposed to happen. It may be after I'm gone. . . . When a literary character has an existence without you, it's going to happen.''
Her next novel will be The Scarpetta Factor. In it, Scarpetta, already an analyst for CNN, is asked to do her own show but is reluctant. Police seeking her help say that when they're stumped, they need "the Scarpetta factor," but that is a cliche to the horrified forensic pathologist.
Cornwell used the doctor's name in the title again to focus on character and offer another departure from earlier gruesome titles like Book of the Dead and All That Remains. "I don't want titles that depress people, that won't get sold in a hospital gift shop,'' Cornwell says.
And she wants to tip her hat, one more time, to Scarpetta.
Carol Blair can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2389.