Patricia Cornwell’s intensity echoes chillingly through the phone line. She’s probably donning a crisp black suit in her New York City hotel room, drinking espresso, gesticulating at personal assistants and wearing a hardened glare. At least that’s how one might think an interview would go with this larger-than-life figure, who, with 11 bestsellers, has done for crime writing what Martha Stewart has done for “good things.”
Actually, Cornwell’s quite the opposite of Cybil Shepard’s bitchy-Martha portrayal. Her voice is authoritative, but not in a condescending way. Not in the least.
Cornwell is one of those people who puts you right at ease by finding a common ground, even if that is like Bono giving high-five to the loser on “American Idol.” The 49-year-old was born in Miami, Fla., but got started as a journalist at the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina, where she picked up the police beat, not knowing that crime writing would be her calling. “I had no idea I would become so fascinated by it,” she says.
At first, though, no one else was fascinated either. Publishers rejected Cornwell’s idea to write fiction based on real crimes, with research in real medical examiners’ offices. “I was told that no one wants to read about bodies and morgues,” she says, with a last laugh tickling her throat. She caught a break in 1990 when she finally got the go-ahead to write Post Mortem. “That was the beginning of the forensic madness,” says Cornwell, correctly giving herself some of the credit for the current wave of forensic anthropology’s popularityin the media. Crime and murder had always been hot topics in fiction, of course, but rarely had anyone had been so focused on the dirty, bloody details of the investigation itself. And people loved it.
If you think about it, it’s oddhow we’re so engrossed by things that are, um, gross. But Cornwell says it’s not the gore, but the thrill of the unknown that draws audiences to dark subjects. “It all goes back to Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes,” she says. “Everyone wants to be a detective. We all want to solve the mystery.” Well, Nancy and Bess were usually faced with shattered windowsor fabric swatchesat the scene of the crime rather than questions of multiple stab wounds orbullet trajectory, but the sentiment’s the same. Whatever the draw, Cornwell has tapped into a literary goldmine. Like soap-opera addicts, her readers can’t get enough of the morbid cases, familiar characters, and even the racy scenes they sometimes find themselves in. She now has a new book called Predator out on the shelves, and Cornwell is happy to rehash how she got where she is, her appreciation for Knoxville and how she deals with death from day to day.
Before Cornwell had even embarked on her writing career, she had a serendipitous run-in with someone who would become very influential to her down the road. His name was Dr. Bill Bass, the UT professor who’s largely responsible for many recent advances in forensic anthropology—both directly, with his brainchild that he called the Anthropology Research Facility, and indirectly, through the many students he inspired and who are now at the forefront of the field. Bass was lecturing at themedical examiner’s office in Richmond, Va., at the time when a young Cornwell was working there, entering data. She would later call him to ask to do some research for her third book to be released in ’96 at his then-relatively unknown facility. “I had no idea she was going to call it The Body Farm ,” laughs Bass. “I was surprised that she even thought enough of my research to base a whole book on it.” Turns out there was plenty to write about, and in 2003, Bass co-wrote his own book with writer Jon Jefferson, called Death’s Acre , to give a nonfictional account of the formation and growth of the facility.
What’s become widely known as “The Body Farm” (Cornwell picked up the nickname during a class at the FBI headquarters in Quantico, Va. and Bass himself uses now it) is just a typical East Tennessee plot of land behind UT Hospital, but its research projects on donated bodies,which simulate remains that a detective might find in various stages of decay, are quite unusual—it’s the only facility of its kind in the country. And while she seems to only skim the surface of Knoxville’s culture in The Body Farm , mentioning Calhoun’s on the river and the infamous “sea of orange,” she’s well-acquainted with the forensic community here. “I hope that you are very proud of your city,” says Cornwell, addressing Knoxville as a whole. “A lot of people don’t realize what they’ve got right in their back yard. UT is a mecca of forensic anthropology.”
Cornwell still visits Knoxville from time to time because of her involvement with another asset of our forensic community, the National Forensic Academy, a training program that gives law-enforcement officers from all over the country hands-on experience at the Body Farm in addition to a lecture component. Cornwell urges anyone interested in forensics to get on her website ( www.patriciacornwell.com ) and take “The Challenge,” an online course that teaches the bare bones of crime scene investigation.
While Cornwell encourages peoples’ curiosity about forensics, don’t get her started on the misconceptions many of them glean from the tube. She says the popularity of sensational, and often misleading television crime shows, is not just annoying but actually hinders the criminal-justice system. “People are grossly misinformed by the entertainment industry. I’m quite stunned that this happened, because with most entertainment, people have an editing mechanism. But with forensics, it’s such an abstract area that people take what they see on TV as the truth,” she says. “It’s not uncommon for cops to show up to a robbery scene and the victims will already have the ‘evidence’ bagged up. Well, that can destroy the whole case.” And while she acknowledges that her writing has contributed to the proliferation of such shows, Cornwell didn’t anticipate the negative effects. “I never would have imagined that it would catch on this much, and I certainly didn’t imagine that it would metastasize and there would be this backlash,” she says.
Worse still is that misinformation can translate to the courtroom. Cornwell says that defense attorneys will often question whether investigators used luminol tests, gunshot residue tests and other catchphrases they might have learned about on TV. No matter that the test might be irrelevantin the given case, the fact that the investigator didn’t perform it still potentially sheds doubt in the eyes of the jury. Of course, Cornwell refers to such methods in her books, but because of her in-depth research attending trials, autopsies, crime scenes and classes, they’re referred to properly.
“She’s the kind of person who likes to figure out how things work,” says Bass. “She does immense research for her books—if you read a Patricia Cornwell book, you’re getting the truth.”
You’re also getting a damn entertaining read. And Cornwell’s right, there is something delicious about figuring out a whodunit before it’s revealed. In her latest offering, Predator , however, Cornwell says her goal was to make that feat virtually impossible. “I decided when I started this that I wanted to do something different,” she says. “I wanted to do something that’s really tough to figure out. I think it’s by far the biggest riddle I’ve written.”
The twisting, multi-saga plot of Predator introduces what Cornwell calls “the final frontier” of forensics: neuroscience. The beloved heroine, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, is always one step behind the apparent murderer while working a case in Florida with the help of her moody crony Pete Marino and techie-whiz niece, Lucy. All the while, her smoldering boyfriend Benton Welsley is up in Massachusetts doing brain scans of incarcerated serial killers, one of whom knows a bit too much about the very case Scarpetta is working on. Curiouser and curiouser.
The book is based on real research being done at McClean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., where scientists are working to decipher what factors, ranging from mental illness to disturbing life experiences, provoke someone to go on a killing spree. “I do think there’s such a thing as good and evil,” says Cornwell. “I think we are all capable of evil behavior, but most of us have brain functions that tell us not to do that. Some people are not equipped to resist that urge.”
While serial killings captivate the public, often catapulting killers like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer into a kind of morbid celebrity, most murders are crimes of passion that go under the radar. And though she’s not a doctor or a cop, Cornwell’s research brings her in close contact with gruesome crimes and, many times, victims whose story may never be told. “I feel a tremendous amount of empathy for victims,” she says. “That’s another thing that’s missing from the TV shows—they become these unreal bodies lying on a steel table.”
In her line of work, Cornwell thinks about death a lot. But it’s not something she has ever gotten desensitized to. In fact, she says, her sensitivity is one of the main traits she shares with Scarpetta. “I react to pain and suffering the way she does,” she says. “She and I both have to keep a clinical demeanor while working, but then those feelings you’ve got tucked away just come on. But we’re very different in a lot of ways. I’m not a forensic pathologist, for example, and I’m not the star of all these books.”
Some would argue with that, but it’s nice to know that this uber-successful writer doesn’t put herself on a pedestal. She’s even a little bashful. When asked whether she’d donate her body to the Body Farm, she says, “I don’t think I’m a good candidate for that. They’d have to build the fences a little higher and add some locks.”