- 20 Sep 02
She began her career as a police reporter before taking a job in the Chief Medical Examiner's Office in Virginia. There, she spent as much time in the morgue as possible, watching autopsies - including dozens on bodies which had been savagely maimed and mutilated in the course of being murdered. Now she writes crime novels, but Patricia D. Cornwell keeps going back to the morgue to witness the kind of gruesome sights that would give an angel bad dreams. Interview: Liam Fay Pix: Colm Henry
YOU CAN learn a lot by reading a Patricia D. Cornwell novel. Did you know, for instance, that at FBI Headquarters in Washington D.C. there is an entire laboratory department devoted exclusively to the analysis of bird feathers?
"It's an important part of forensic science," explains Cornwell. "You see, bird strikes are a big problem for the aviation industry. During flights, birds are always getting sucked into jet engines and that causes all sorts of havoc. An ingested seagull can crash a B-1 bomber and if you've got a wide-bodied plane full of people and you lose even one engine to a bird strike then you've got trouble. There was also a case of a loon that went through the windshield of a Lear jet and decapitated the pilot.
"As you can imagine, the birds get chewed up pretty good when they hit the engines so when the officials examine the wreckage on the ground all they have are feather parts. That's where the feather trace analysis comes in, so they can figure out which birds cause the problems. They also test turbines and blades by throwing in chickens. You know, can the plane survive one chicken or two?
"It was actually the crime scene aspect of feather analysis that really intrigued me, though. Birds can figure in all sorts of things. A feather from a particular species on a car seat can tell you what part of the country a suspect was driving through. Pigeon down in poop on a suspect's shoes will tell you that he was in a particular alleyway where the body of a murder victim was found.
"Because I wanted to use some of this kind of stuff in my latest book, I spent a day with a trace evidence examiner in FBI Headquarters who's the world's foremost expert on feather analysis. I went through all his feather files, his drawers, his slides and I found out all that stuff that I teach you in the book. It's all completely accurate."
In the world of the procedural crime novel, the name of Patricia Cornwell is a veritable byword for accuracy. Since 1990, she has published four thrillers (including her latest, "Cruel and Unusual"), all centred around the character of Dr. Kay Scarpetta, the fictional Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia. These books have won her a slew of critical gongs and sashes, and propelled her to the top of the best-seller lists but, for Cornwell herself, the ultimate accolade is that her work has been praised for its authenticity by doctors, forensic scientists and police officials throughout the US.
"This means that I'm really, really careful now," she says. "The fact that my books are so popular with the scientific community is a great compliment but it puts a lot of pressure on me not to be sloppy. I'm terrified of getting something wrong now. Too many people will jump all over me."
In her novels, Cornwell unfolds her police investigations at a pace that is taut and tense but nonetheless always retains an air of believability. Clues never pop up out of nowhere, evidence is always worked for and painstakingly accumulated. Scarpetta and her partner in crime detection, Lieutenant Pete Marino, are not portrayed as telepathic supersleuths who can read criminal minds, they're dedicated professionals following definite lines of inquiry.
"We live in a world of information where people are extremely interested in the details of their surroundings," insists Cornwell. "There's such a proliferation of technology now that it makes sense that people should be interested in how it is used. The old fashioned crime novel idea of the ingenious detective who figures it all out in his own mind and then invites the suspects to the drawing room so he can expose the murderer, that's all gone. There's still plenty of room for deductive reasoning but it's also fascinating to see how it's really done, how the lab plays such a major role in an investigation these days.
"This has changed the nature of the kinds of books that are being written. People's attention spans are shorter. They like to read books which teach them more about the world they live in while also entertaining them. They don't like to feel that they're wasting their time."
And has Cornwell ever been tempted to bend the science a little in order to spice up the plot? "I don't have anything in my novels that would not work in real life," she replies. "Occasionally, I take situations that are slightly improbable and have fun with that but the technology and the science are always real."
Patricia Cornwell's crime writing career began when she spent a couple of years as a police reporter with a newspaper called The Charlotte Observer. She eventually quit journalism and took a job as a computer analyst in the Chief Medical Examiner's office in Virginia.
"I wanted to write crime novels and I decided that the best place to research the reality of murder was in the morgue," she recalls. "I started spending as much time in the morgue as they allowed me to. Eventually I started working there part-time, labelling test tubes or whatever, anything so I could watch the autopsies.
"I guess I was lucky in that the first autopsy I witnessed was on an old woman who had died suddenly and was not in the care of a physician so, by law, it was a medical examiner's case. It was a straightforward autopsy, she had died a natural death but I still had to steel myself because it's a big shock the first time you see that wire incision, the organs being taken out and the skull being sawn open.
"I did well. I did not get sick and I realised later that that had been an easy one to see. I saw some much worse ones, murder cases, not long after that and I wouldn't have been able to take those the first time 'round. Whoever that dear old woman was, she led me gently down the path. The woods got much darker after that."
Cornwell reckons that to date she has observed a total of over two hundred autopsies. Among those, there have been dozens of post-mortems on bodies that had been savagely maimed and mutilated. She has, she says, seen sights so gruesome that she would never even contemplate describing them in one of her novels.
"I think I have a responsibility to protect you as a reader," Cornwell asserts. "There are things that I've seen that I wish I hadn't. Death is very ugly. You don't need to smell everything I have, you don't need to count the maggots, know what I mean? I spare you most of the really grotesque detail. I give you enough of an impression so you get the idea of what I'm saying. You don't need to walk through everything I have to get to that.
"On a grimmer note, there are just many things that have been done to some murder victims that you don't need to have in graphic detail. There are many things that go along with law enforcement which aren't necessarily germane to the kinds of stories that I write.
"For example, if I make reference to your psychopaths or your sexual sadists who like to film their victims while they're being tortured to death, saying that is as much as I need do. I don't need to show that to you because I've seen it, I've heard it and I'll never forget it as long as I live.
"As awful as it is to see what I've seen in the morgue, I don't see these people when they're actually going through their torture and death. And to see their faces and hear their screams on one of these sadist's tapes, that's unbearable. So I don't want to show that to you in my books. I can understand why people who come home from war sometimes are never the same because they've seen some of this.
"My mission in life is not to inflict Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome on the entire reading public."
Though Cornwell herself has never suffered anything as dramatic as PTSS, she maintains that her psyche has been indelibly marred by her years as a fly on the mortuary wall. She is still, she says, prone to occasional nightmares and autopsy images often creep up on her when she least expects them.
"I've become a very jumpy person and I get upset by things that wouldn't upset other people," she explains. "I'm very squeamish. I can't watch violent movies, I can't watch violent television. I have to be very careful what channel I put on when I'm home alone because if there's violence on I get very frightened and very upset. I can't handle even what you would consider normal shows because that blood is real to me, the pain is real to me. I'm hyper-sensitive to things that don't bother other people."
In this context, Cornwell is extremely uneasy with the cult of celebrity which has come to surround the perpetration of certain types of violent crime, especially serial murders. In fact, she takes the rather hysterical view that those convicted of such acts should be automatically executed.
"I don't think Ted Bundy should still be with us," she insists. "I don't think Jeffrey Dahlmer should either. The nature of their crimes is so horrendous that they have forfeited their right to be in society.
"Removing them and putting them in a penitentiary just isn't enough. It's not enough of a certainty that they're not going to create further harm. And, meanwhile, on the outside they're being fêted by appearing on the cover of People magazine or being made into comic characters by chat show hosts. There's nothing comic or glamorous about what these people do.
"And I'm not speaking about the clinically insane here either. I don't worry so much about the people who are crazy so much as those who are psychopathic. People who are crazy don't really know what they're doing. They're not the ones who are your serial killers. The predators of society are not crazy.
"They are people with character disorders. They have no remorse and no feeling. They're like sharks. Those dead eyes, they never register anything. They're just cold. And how do you stop a killer shark from killing? You kill it!"
Patricia Cornwell worries about the fact that so much contemporary crime fiction feeds off the public's fascination with serial killing or violent crime in general, and indeed vice versa. A case in point is the phenomenal success, in both book and movie form, of Thomas Harris' "The Silence Of The Lambs".
"I have a lot of ambivalence about 'The Silence Of The Lambs'," she says. "Thomas Harris is brilliant and so on but I have a lot of trouble with a psychopath being so sympathetic. I'm not sure people should be laughing at that character or liking him. I would not want to spend time with a Hannibal Lecter character and it's not what I would want to write about.
"I don't want to like somebody like that. I don't want to relate to what he feels and thinks because I worry about what it would do to me. It's one thing for the FBI profilers and behavioural scientists to do that, it's another thing for your average person to find it funny when he rips people's faces off or to laugh when he says he's having a good friend for dinner.
"People who really work these cases don't find any of that funny. They take it very seriously and the thing is when you create somebody like this I'm not so sure your audience is taking it seriously. If they were to meet a Hannibal Lecter in real life or see the evidence of his work they would not think it was funny. They would very quietly sit down and be sick.
"In my own books, I don't glamorise these people or make them attractive. I'm not obsessed with the killers. I only want to get so close to them myself. They make me nervous. If you dine with the devil, use a long spoon."
What about the science and police procedure in "The Silence Of The Lambs", was that up to scratch?
"Not entirely," replies Cornwell. "You would never have a new FBI agent going into a maximum security penitentiary and interviewing a serial killer on Death Row, never. Good grief, new agents aren't even allowed to carry guns. They're as green as somebody just out of college. The morgue scenes were also off. There are some funeral homes where the kind of activity you saw in the movie happens from time to time but that was definitely not a sophisticated medical examination with the good old geezer putting the Vicks up his nose.
"And you wouldn't have an FBI agent with forceps getting something out of a body's throat or even examining a gun shot wound," she adds "That's totally ludicrous. They don't know that sort of thing. But I guess some people were willing to suspend their disbelief in order to enjoy the story."
For her own part, Patricia Cornwell continues to immerse herself in intensive research in order to ensure that future Kay Scarpetta novels (and many more are planned) will also carry her trademark ring of truth. Cornwell regularly attends medical school lectures and FBI symposia and a couple of times every month she rides with a late night police patrol in Richmond, Virginia where she lives. She's even been known to drop in on her friends at the Medical Examiner's Office now and again to catch up on the latest autopsy techniques.
"It's part of my ongoing education," she smiles. "And, in a strange sort of way, it makes me feel more secure by reminding me that there's always somebody out there, taking care of business."
"Cruel And Unusual" is published by Little Brown at #14.99 sterling.