How We Met: Keith Mant and Patricia D Cornwell

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The Independent Culture
The writer Patricia D Cornwell, aged 37, was born in Miami, Florida. After graduating, she worked as a crime reporter. This month, she was awarded the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger for Cruel and Unusual, published by Little, Brown. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, which is the setting of all her novels. Keith Mant is 74 and Professor Emeritus of Forensic Medicine at the University of London. He used to travel regularly to America to lecture and work with colleagues, and often visited the Chief Medical Examiner's Office in Richmond, Virginia, where he has many friends.

PATRICIA D CORNWELL: In 1985, when I met Dr Mant, I'd just started going to the Richmond Medical Examiner's Office. I'd been asked to write technical features for a medical journal. Because of the research involved, I knew people in the department, many of whom were friends or colleagues of Dr Mant. He usually came over once a year to meet with them professionally.

Knowing about my plans to write crime novels, someone advised me that Dr Mant was definitely one of the people I should talk to. I vividly remember the day he came into the conference room. I was so excited about meeting this extremely distinguished guest from London, who had come to study gunshot wounds.

He probably has no idea about this, but Dr Mant was a very powerful influence on me. I'd read a lot of his papers and he was something of a legendary figure. I didn't even have a manuscript to show him, but I explained that I didn't want to write the traditional crime mystery novel. Dr Mant gave me a lot of valuable advice. At that stage, I hadn't even been allowed to attend an autopsy, but he was patient with all my questions.

Dr Mant is one of the few people who goes back to the days when I was a real wide-eyed innocent. Newly married, I'd been a successful crime reporter for the Charlotte Observer and written one published biography which had sold a quarter of a million copies. Feeling so confident about my abilities, there was no way I could have had any idea that in wanting to become a crime writer, I faced an incredibly tough road ahead. A road which would include a divorce, three unpublished books and a period when I was so short of money I ended up sleeping on the floor.

Over the years, we corresponded. Each time Dr Mant came back to Richmond, we talked, and he would patiently explain aspects of forensic medicine. I remember a complicated discussion about arsenic poisoning, and the toxicology in a body once it's been buried. It was very technical, but he took me through it step by step. As time went by and I still had nothing to show him, he didn't say, 'Why haven't you written anything yet?' I was thrilled when he wrote to congratulate me on the Gold Dagger award.

In spite of all that he has seen in his work, he's put all his energy into trying to see that justice is done. Other than justice there is very little reward because you can never bring that dead body back to life. Dr Mant is a great humanitarian who has a special empathy: to care about the dead. I've always been impressed by the exceptional qualities of faith and kind-heartedness of people like Dr Mant who work in this profession.

I'm quite sure that if I'd met a crabby, cold, humourless person instead of Dr Mant, I wouldn't have been so encouraged to create a character like Dr Kay Scarpetta. Originally, she was going to be a minor character, but, once I started, she began to take over. Sometimes I feel that she believes she invented me.

As with most of his colleagues, Dr Mant has a certain humour and bawdiness which can become quite black. You find yourself laughing at the most inappropriate things. Given what most of them have to deal with, I suppose it's only human nature to turn to laughter rather than tears. He's a brilliant raconteur, but above all, he's a very gentle man who raises orchids and enjoys fishing. The first time I went to visit him at his home, it was after the hurricane and I felt so sad when he showed me all the trees which had been destroyed.

Early on, I discovered that one of the things he most enjoys is good Bourbon. When he came to stay, I was pleased to introduce him to Blantons, which is really special. I'm not in the habit of sharing it with too many people, but I always keep some for him.

It's kind of strange looking back to the days when I first used to go to him for advice. I was this would-be crime writer in dollars 40, discounted trouser suits. Now, I buy designer clothes and take him out to lunch at the Connaught.

Ever since I started being around autopsies I went off organs in a big way. I certainly couldn't handle eating liver and kidneys, but Dr Mant loves his steak and kidney pudding. It's what he usually orders when we're together. He's a real trouper.

KEITH MANT: I was delighted to give my time to someone who was so interested in forensic medicine. Patsy was a very nice girl, with an easy, natural personality. When my friends in the Medical Examiner's Office suggested she came to see me, I was more than happy to meet her and give her what advice I could. Patsy was definitely on the right wavelength. I remember discussing how to structure a plot which, of course, is crucial to the type of book she was hoping to write. Having trained as a journalist, she always asked sensible questions and her approach was nothing less than professional, which I think is obvious in all her books.

I've always enjoyed serious crime writers, especially Edgar Wallace and Dorothy Sayers. Patsy's work is very good indeed. She's on the ball. Five years after our first meeting, she presented me with a copy of her first book, Post Mortem. I thought it was excellent. What I particularly like about Patsy's writing is the way she manages to balance the plots and the characters. So often with modern writers, they're terribly good for the first 90 per cent and then the last 10 per cent seems to fade away. Patsy manages to write page-turning stuff which keeps up the momentum right until the last line.

I don't think she's going to run out of ideas. In Richmond, like most American cities, there are a great many violent homicides, so a writer like Patsy, who deliberately based

herself at the Medical Examiner's Office, had plenty of research material.

Although she insists that Dr Kay Scarpetta isn't based on anyone, I definitely know who she is. Scarpetta is my very good friend, Dr Marcella Fierro, from the Richmond Medical Examiner's Office. I know her even better than Patsy does. I always refer to Scarpetta as Marcella. Cruel and Unusual, the book that won the Gold Dagger award, is even dedicated to Marcella. The two of them came to visit me in England and I took them to a typical English country pub, for steak and kidney pie. The pub had beams and polished brass. I know Americans love all that.

The one criticism I've ever had with Patsy is that Dr Kay Scarpetta is much too emotionally involved with the cases. In this job you have to be detached. I told Patsy that I wished she hadn't allowed the character to let her emotions interfere with the job. Patsy said she quite agreed with me but her publisher had asked her to make the character more appealing.

Sometimes I find it quite difficult to describe people, but not Patsy. She stamped her personality on me the first time we met. She's very friendly, intelligent and attractive. She's also extremely generous with her excellent Bourbon, which I always look forward to drinking when I visit her. We both enjoy a bit of professional gossip, and I'm afraid there's usually a certain amount of black humour in our conversations. It goes with the job.

It's entirely due to Patsy that I've finally started to use a word processor. She knows a great deal about computers and I took her advice. My family have been nagging me for ages to start writing my memoirs. Now I will, hopefully, get down to some serious writing. Patsy is always on at me to have a go at writing crime fiction but I don't think I could do it.

Patsy has hardly altered at all, although these days her dress style is rather different. She tends to wear quite flashy colours. When I first met her, her suits were much more conservative. With all those bereaved relatives around the Medical Examiner's Office, flashy clothes would have been quite out of place. -

(Photograph omitted)