Message From The Author
Taking the Mystery
Out of Crime Fiction
PATRICIA CORNWELL COMES ALIVE WITH BOOK OF THE DEAD
By Diane Snyder
Call Patricia Cornwell a thriller writer or a crime fiction author, but whatever you do, don't label her a mystery author. To her, the term describes a much more genteel, Agatha Christie type of book, not ones with vivid descriptions of dead bodies.
"I find that calling books mysteries is sexist
if you think about," says the Florida-born, North Carolina-raised author. "You don't describe John Grisham or Tom Clancy or Thomas Harris as mystery writers. I don't really write about poison tea and things like that."
What this forensic thriller pioneer does write about -- and has been writing about since the 1990 publication of her first book, Postmortem -- is medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, who, after being put through the wringer in Florida in Cornwell's last book, relocates to South Carolina in this month's Book of the Dead (Putnam). There, Scarpetta opens a private forensics lab and soon gets embroiled in some mysterious deaths, both locally and abroad, that she and her entourage -- Pete Marino, her lover Benton Wesley and her niece Lucy Farinelli -- struggle to solve.
Readers may not be seeing a whole new Scarpetta in her 15th outing, but certainly her relationships with her longtime colleagues are changing. "I made a deliberate effort to have the characters very powerfully interact with each other," explains Cornwell, who now lives in the Boston area and still has traces of a Southern accent.
"When I started writing, my books were basically forensic thrillers," she continues. "Now everybody is saturated with forensic science, and I wanted to focus more on the characters and how they interact with each other, their love lives, their lack of love lives and the emotional impact of the crime. The characters had been rather scattered in the last few books, and I wanted to reverse that."
Cornwell, who in conversation comes across as alternately charming and tough, acknowledges that she listened to what her readers told her they wanted. "There have been people who've complained because they don't see Scarpetta in the kitchen anymore. She's gonna cook up a storm in this book!" she promises. "I also wanted to give it a texture and a context and a richness which would be a counterpoint to the horror of what's going on."
Still, not all readers may be pleased with what happens between her characters, especially Scarpetta and Marino. "At some point their relationship was going to reach critical mass, and it certainly does in this book," Cornwell reveals. "I think a lot of people will
be shocked by what happens between them. It scared me to do it, because I don't know how people will react to this."
Not one to rest on her bestseller-list laurels, Cornwell says she continues to hone her craft with each book. "There are two things that I do on a rather chronic basis," she explains. "One is that I will look at other authors who I think are just brilliant writers -- the untouchable ones like Hemingway, for example -- and basically study the structure of the sentences and of dialogue to see why something is so masterful and has the effect that it does. The art of writing poetry is a great thing to study because it's all rhythm- and image-based."
At the other end of the spectrum, Cornwell also looks at screenplays: "If you try to analyze what doesn't quite work about a movie, that may teach you a lot about what might not work about a particular scene in a book."
Cornwell courted controversy from some fans when she switched from first-person to third-person omniscient point of view with 2003's Blow Fly. "A lot of people said they liked being inside Scarpetta's head," Cornwell admits. "But she didn't want me in there any more, and I got tired of being in there because I kept bouncing against the sides of her skull. It became a very small space."
Third person, Cornwell explains, is more challenging and gives her more opportunities to delve into her other characters and build suspense, citing as an example a scene in Book of the Dead where readers know the killer's car is parked behind Scarpetta's house at night, but Kay doesn't.
While continuing with Scarpetta, Cornwell is also planning a follow-up to 2006's At Risk, featuring Boston detective Win Garano. Just like the first book, which was serialized in the New York Times Magazine before it was published as a novel, this one will first be serialized in the London Times. At this time she has no plans for a new nonfiction book but adds that at some point she'll do a revision of her controversial Jack the Ripper book, Portrait of a Killer.
Earlier this year, Cornwell won a libel judgment against a man named Leslie Sachs, who she says has been attacking her on the Internet -- accusing her of being an anti-Semite and conspiring to have him killed -- since 2000, when he accused her of copying ideas from his self-published novel in her Scarpetta book, The Last Precinct. Even though he never threatened her directly, Cornwell, who married her lesbian partner in Massachusetts, says she's become vigilant about security. "If it isn't some wacko like this particular guy, there's always another one to take that person's place. It's like fastening your seat belt," she says. "I don't live in fear. I just live with the awareness that I should always be careful."
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