BOOK REVIEW / As shocking as a shower in formaldehyde: Amanda Craig talks to Patricia Cornwell about violence on and off the page
'It's very covert, very closed as a world; you're either a writer or you're nuts to be interested. They did a lot of background checks on me,' she says, grinning. 'But they were the only people who gave me a job after I tried to make the leap from non-fiction to fiction, and failed.'
Having started as an investigative journalist who pursued snipers on to rooftops in her eagerness, and then becoming an award-winning biographer, Cornwell wrote three 'murder in the vicarage' novels, all of which were turned down. Yet as her interest in forensics grew, so did the character of Dr Scarpetta, originally a minor character. Finally Post Mortem, narrated in a style at once dry and dreamlike, emerged. It was an instant success, winning five crime awards on both sides of the Atlantic.
Perhaps the first entirely credible woman sleuth, Scarpetta is closest to Sherlock Holmes in relying entirely on her brain rather than breaks or brawn to solve baffling cases.
'There are a number of female MEs in the States, including Richmond,' Cornwell explains. 'Women tend to be very good at it. We know more about the domicile, we pay a lot of attention to detail, patterns than men.'
Male chauvinism and office politics endanger Scarpetta almost as much as psychopaths. The sense of threat, underlined by Richmond's bad weather, is perennial. Sometimes, Scarpetta herself becomes the next target, but in Cruel and Unusual (Little, Brown, pounds 14.99) she not only has to trace a supposedly executed psychopath by means of a single feather but faces prosecution for malpractice. 'Survival was my only hope, success my only revenge' is her repeated motto.
Scarpetta lacks her creator's Country and Western gutsiness but shares the intellectual drive produced by an unhappy childhood with a sick mother in Miami. Cornwell's rapid-fire drawl is studded with Hepburnished wisecracks but what engages is her honesty and sheer professionalism. Both author and creation are small thirtysomething blondes, childless, and wedded to their work.
'I still visit the morgue about six times a year and ride on the night shift with the police. I need to be with people who don't know and who don't care that I'm a celebrity, whose basic intent is to survive. It keeps me normal.'
Both Cornwell and Scarpetta believe in capital punishment and the evils both have witnessed - children tortured, pregnant women murdered, cannibalism where teeth marks have been carefully excised - makes her contemptuous both of the pornography of violence and of the belief that 'squirrels' are sick.
'There are a few who are psychotic, but not in my books. I'm interested in people who kill for sport, predators who pick you out as a stranger. It's the cold-bloodedness and sadism I find chilling. What you're dealing with is good versus evil. I'll never be the same person I was before I saw my first autopsy; I see violence now in a totally different way,' she says, emphatically.
'Scarpetta couldn't do what she does if she didn't care so much about the living. She's not a crusader, she just carries on and does what she has to do.'
Surprisingly, she does not read crime fiction - an omission which may account for some similarities with Sara Paretsky - preferring Mark Helprin and Tom Wolfe. The deficiencies of her style show whenever she has to write about emotions (Scarpetta's gloopiest moments come with her niece), but she also proves Wolfe's theory that what is wrong with so many novels is the absence of journalistic observation. One scene in Cruel and Unusual, for instance, in which a new chemical, Luminol, causes 10-year-old bloodstains to shine out of the floor and walls of a darkened house, strays into Macbeth territory.
'I don't think fiction should deal with people leading nice lives in designer clothes,' she says. 'It should deal with the most basic part of human life, what makes us live and love and - stop.'
To those who want well-plotted thrills, Cornwell's descriptions of how we can die is as shocking as a shower in formaldehyde, but to those interested in the poetry of reality she offers something altogether more traditional, and formidable.
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 2 The awkward moment Sarah Palin raised $25,000 for Hillary Clinton's election campaign
- 3 Ball pool for adults opens in London
- 4 Amal Clooney gives excellent response to fashion question at European Court of Human Rights
- 5 Baldness could soon be treated using stem cells, scientists hope
The Jump 2015 line-up: Joey Essex, Mike Tindall, Jodie Kidd and co take to the slopes
Heavy metal producer's corpse to be mutilated by models as per his dying wish
Game of Thrones, season 5: Grey Worm actor Jacob Anderson is all for more male nudity – as long as he can keep his clothes on
Thrill of the chaste: The truth about Gandhi's sex life
Martin Scorsese 'in shock' after death on set of new film Silence
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures