Creator of one of the world’s most popular crime solvers, Patricia Cornwell pioneered the genre of forensic thrillers, opening the door for countless similar books and television shows. Since 1990, her chronicles of Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a medical examiner, have been published in more than 120 countries and have sold more than 100 million copies. Cornwell’s latest, The Bone Bed, is the 20th book featuring Scarpetta; this one centers on a high-stakes investigation surrounding a paleontologist who’s gone missing while on a dinosaur dig in Canada. Scarpetta connects the woman’s disappearance to recent crimes, including a murder closer to home, in Massachusetts, where she’s called to separate a dead body from an endangered leatherback turtle, among other feats. The story is nail-bitingly violent and suspenseful, and it highlights Scarpetta’s signature survival instinct, brilliant logic and attention to personal relationships. In advance of a Nashville appearance on Saturday, Cornwell recently spoke by phone.
In a quest for veracity, you’ve done everything from witnessing a prisoner’s execution to biting into raw chicken to study bite marks. What kind of research did you do for The Bone Bed?
I do a lot of research on all my books, and at this stage, the research becomes cumulative; it’s like layers of civilization: I couldn’t have written any of these books if I hadn’t written all of them. Even so, you have to do fresh research for each one. For The Bone Bed, I needed to familiarize myself with turtles, particularly the leatherback turtle. I spent time with New England marine-animal rescuers and touched these turtles and had to put on a dry suit and get into a water tank with some of them. When I described Scarpetta retrieving that body from the harbor in the dry suit, I needed to know what it felt like for her to do that, putting it on, getting in the water. I want my readers to feel the same things that I feel. I want to give them that experience. So I did a lot of that type of research. I went on a dinosaur dig in Grande Prairie, exactly where I describe in the book, stayed in a trailer, went out in the woods with no electricity, pouring rain, mucky mud. I found some dinosaur bones and a tooth in the very place where I had the paleontologist last visit before she disappears. That’s a bone bed that I actually worked on. I had to climb up the side of a mountain to get to it, with bungee cords. So sometimes I pick something to do because I want to write about it, and sometimes it picks me.
Early on in this book, Scarpetta thinks, “There really isn’t anything gory or gruesome I’ve not seen or can’t somehow handle.” Do you feel that way? Where do you draw the line about what details to include when it comes to corpses?
I do have my barriers. There are things that are, quite honestly, so disturbing or so disgusting that it’s upsetting, and there’s no reason to expose my readers to that. I see and experience many things that I would not share because I think they’re damaging and gratuitous. These boundaries are something you have to learn over time. You test them. I’ve tested them as a writer constantly over these past 22 years, and sometimes I get too close to one, and then I back off. For some years I was writing in the third-person point of view, and that entailed my having to go into the mind of a killer. After Book of the Dead, which came out in 2007, I said, “I can’t do this anymore; it’s too upsetting to me. I don’t like spending time with these evil people, and it’s too graphic to show the violence of what they do.” It’s much safer when we’re inside Scarpetta’s mind or at least very close by with her. So I backed away from all that, and now we’re back to her first-person point of view; we’re inside her mind. That doesn’t mean necessarily that it’s a safe world she’s in, but somehow it feels safer when she’s there. In The Bone Bed, it’s very harrowing, what happens at the end, and we should be quite frightened for her, but I think there’s an in-built trust that I’m not going to let anything happen to this character.
You’ve pioneered this genre of forensic thrillers and, by extension, innumerable television shows like CSI. Why do you think people respond so ardently, even obsessively, to these character-driven stories about murder and the study of evidence?
Because people are all basically puzzle-solvers, and we all examine our own existence and what could threaten it. I think it’s just human nature, like when you’re driving past a car wreck and everybody turns around and looks. We’re thinking of ourselves. What did that person do to cause their car to be all wrapped around a guardrail? Or what happened to this woman that went out in her back yard to let her dog out and was never seen again? We want to know these things because we have a rationalization that if we understand random violence — or even premeditated violence or acts of God — then maybe we can prevent them from happening to us. It’s a survival instinct, oddly. Scarpetta made forensic science and medicine accessible to the average person and to the entertainment industry.
What’s been different for you about the experience of writing the first Scarpetta book that was published in 1990 and this, the20th?
These characters grow up with me, and I grow up with them; I create them and they create me. I learned to fly helicopters because I decided Lucy should do it; I made her a pilot, and in turn she made me one. I became a scuba diver because of Scarpetta. The world we live in today isn’t even remotely similar to the world of the late 1980s, when I started all of this. And the genre changes. As I invented a genre, the forensic thriller, in turn I have to reinvent it because everyone else is doing something similar. It’s extremely organic. As I get older, I think differently, and I notice different things, and I have different reflections on life and death and answers to questions like, Why do people do what they do? I don’t believe it’s possible that the series could have sustained the momentum that it still has if it were not constantly in flux and very much alive and vital and changing.
In 2009, Fox bought the rights to make a Scarpetta film, with Angelina Jolie attached. What’s the latest news on that?
We’re very much in the development process of this film. The whole challenge is to get a really great screenplay, and I’ve been helping with that. The next step is to find a great filmmaker. After that, you decide on casting. Angelina Jolie has been attached to this since about three years ago, but that doesn’t really matter because at the end of the day we don’t know who any of these people are going to be. Nobody’s been cast. To be honest, who plays these characters is a lot less important than having a powerful script and a great director. So that’s where we are right now, and we’re certainly much closer to that than we’ve ever been before. I’m working with a great team of people, and I’m confident we’re going to end up with something pretty cool.
I know you lived in Tennessee long ago, when you attended King College in Bristol for a year. Do you have any vivid memories from that period?
My vivid memories of Tennessee that are more relevant are all the times I’ve been to Knoxville because of the National Forensic Academy and the Body Farm [at the University of Tennessee]. That’s almost a second home to me. I’m extremely comfortable in that area. I think of Nashville and Knoxville as Tennessee more than I think of Bristol, which is so close to the Virginia line, and it’s just over the hills from North Carolina. I remember going off to college for the first time, and my most vivid memory of going off to King College is just leaving home. I would take the bus from Asheville through the mountains to get to Bristol. That’s a big deal when you finally leave home.
Speaking of the Body Farm, what drew you there initially?
That place was developed over 30 years ago by anthropologists, and the point was to study the decomposition of human remains so we could learn more about time of death and all sorts of other artifacts that are very important in interpreting a crime scene. Getting the body to talk to us: Where were you? What happened to you? Why are you dressed like this? What is this strange pattern injury on your back? Is it from lying on a rock, or did somebody do something to you? How long has the person been dead is always the key question. It really is a remarkable research facility, but it’s not a happy place to go. It’s a very unpleasant place to go. Death, particularly decomposing death, is a terrible assault to our senses. We’re not supposed to like it. Our biology yells, “Run!” because I’m sure, back in primitive times, if you smelled the stench of death when you were walking through a forest, you didn’t know if that meant a slaughter had just happened and the enemy might still be nearby, or if these people died of a disease that could be contagious. We were meant to be offended by things that might signal danger.
I was fascinated by your nonfiction book about Jack the Ripper, and I’ve heard you’re still investigating that case.
You’ll get another dose of it next year because I’m just finishing up the revision of it. Next year is the 125th anniversary of when the crimes began, as far as we know. Over the last 10 years, I realized, I have a lot of information that’s been gathered over time, so I’m just going to update it. I’m also going to make a lot of the information — such as the scientific reports, photographs, a lot of things — available not only in the e-book but also on my website, so that people can actually go and do the research themselves. Let them work the case!
To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.