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)

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