The prolific, perennially best-selling Patricia Cornwell first kicked her way into publishing 20 years ago with Postmortem, a risky little mystery that introduced the world to Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a medical examiner whose grim science had heretofore been relegated to footnote status.
Seven publishers turned it down before Scribner finally agreed to let the presses roll. Did it succeed? And how! Not only did it become the first novel ever to win the Edgar, Creasey, Anthony and Macavity awards in a single year, but without Cornwell’s infectious introduction to the arcane world of forensics, the letters CSI might be just another meaningless acronym today.
“Part of the reason the publishers hesitated was, it was a world they hadn’t seen before and it was occupied by a woman, and the whole thing was a little bit scary and they weren’t sure it was a smart investment—all $6,000 they paid for it!” Cornwell chuckles. “No one was really sure anybody had an appetite for this sort of thing. Who cares about toxicology labs? Yuck!”
Who cares indeed. Fast-forward a decade to “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced television series set in Las Vegas that premiered on CBS in the fall of 2000. It would become television’s most successful mystery franchise of the new millennium, spawning two equally successful spin-offs and, not incidentally, a mini-boom in forensic-centric crime fiction as well.
The “CSI” craze has been both flattering and somewhat problematic for Cornwell.
“The biggest chalenge for me was creating a genre that then took over like kudzu, and then realizing that there is so much of this because you sort of made it accessible to people and now everybody’s doing it and what are you going to do?” Cornwell says. “Because you can’t take the approach that I did the first 10 years of my career, which was, I’m going to write a book about forensic fire investigation, or about trace evidence, or one that has Interpol and a decomposing body in it. I would pick a certain area of expertise that you’ve never seen before and then show you something that’s really fun. Well, that same approach doesn’t exactly work anymore because there’s no point in spending 10 pages explaining a scanning electron microscope when people can watch one on TV.”
With Port Mortuary, her new Scarpetta mystery and number 18 in the series, Cornwell takes her seasoned chief medical examiner out of her comfort zone in a plot that could be torn from tomorrow’s headlines. As chief of the new Cambridge Forensic Center in Massachusetts, a joint venture between the state and federal governments, MIT and Harvard, Scarpetta has spent months away on a fellowship at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, learning the military’s cutting-edge art of CT-assisted “virtual autopsy” at the request of the White House. During her absence from her day job, a mysterious death near her Cambridge home threatens to shut down the new venture and destroy Scarpetta’s career.
Longtime readers will welcome Cornwell’s return to first-person narration as she tells this grim tale in Scarpetta’s voice. But they may be surprised at the new elements of political intrigue, including a long-hidden secret from Scarpetta’s own military past that reverberates through her new life at the coordinates where military and domestic forensics meet.
Cornwell, who takes pride in immersing herself in field work for inspiration, felt the chill of military secrecy and anti-terrorism forensic investigation, if only from a distance, and likes it as a new flavor for Scarpetta. In truth, she says, medical examiners are often caught up in powerful outside forces.
“Medical examiners put up with a huge amount of political stuff,” she says. “I haven’t really gotten into that a whole lot, but now that Scarpetta has this affiliation with government, it gives me more of a platform to talk about some of it. Having her more involved in government gives me the license to have the flavor of not only a thriller but a spy novel. You don’t always know who the good guys are. You think you know, but maybe you’re wrong.”
Curiosity has driven Cornwell since her days as a police reporter for the Charlotte Observer back in the early 1980s, a cool job that allowed her to stick her nose where it didn’t belong. She still remembers the moment her curiosity put her on the path to becoming a best-selling novelist.
“I decided I wanted to write books about crime and I managed to get an interview with a medical examiner in Richmond, and that was the day that changed my life,” she recalls. “It was the spring of 1984, and I still remember walking into this conference room and sitting down with Dr. Marcella Fierro, who was the first medical examiner I’d ever met, and we spent three hours just discussing forensic medicine. She gave me a tour of the morgue—it was empty at that hour—and she happened to mention that there was some new technology coming down the pike, something called DNA and something called lasers. And I thought, wow, this is cool stuff! I knew at that moment that this was where I want to be; I want to be in this building and learn everything I can about the world these people work in.”
For six years leading up to the publication of Postmortem, Cornwell did just that, working as a technical writer and computer analyst at Dr. Fierro’s ME unit, soaking up the scientific know-how and love of cutting-edge forensics that still power her fiction.
“The truth is, if you walk into a lab, you don’t go, oh my God, this is cool; your first thought is, I have no idea what I’m looking at and I want to run in horror. There’s nothing sexy about any of it,” she says. “You’ve got to let your imagination take hold of it and be able to explain extremely esoteric techniques and put them in terms that they understand and humanize them. And add a dash of poetry while you’re at it.”
Cornwell refers to the plots of “CSI”-type television programs as “forensic fantasy.” As she sees it, “There’s no limit to the kind of stories you can come up with because you’re not limited by the procedures of technology. It’s like ‘Star Trek’—anything that you can imagine, you can do on television.”
That said, Cornwell has seen firsthand how quickly science fiction becomes science fact in the forensics world.
“If I had been writing Port Mortuary back in the days of Postmortem, it would have seemed like ‘Star Trek.’ What’s true about shows like ‘CSI’ is that probably some of the things that seem outrageous now may very well be used in 10 years, or even five years.”