BOOK REVIEW / As shocking as a shower in formaldehyde: Amanda Craig talks to Patricia Cornwell about violence on and off the page

SUCH IS THE hunger for good detective fiction and for feminist icons that it is surprising to find that Patricia D Cornwell's novels have taken three years to climb into the British bestseller lists this month. Cornwell's reader is left in no doubt that the crimes, the suffering and the methods used by her coolly intelligent heroine to track serial killers are no escapist fantasy. For Dr Kay Scarpetta is an autopsist, or Chief Medical Examiner of Richmond, Virginia, and the depth of detail with which her gruesome work is described comes from Cornwell's own six years as computer analyst in the morgue.

'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.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high