Through Scarpetta’s eyes Godmother of forensic fiction Patricia Cornwell talks to Craig Sisterson about fresh storytelling, transcendent ideas, and the possibility of seeing Kay Scarpetta onscreen
Not only is Patricia Cornwell not bored with Kay Scarpetta, her incredibly popular medical examiner heroine she first brought to the page more than twenty years and 100 million book sales ago, she feels her interest has been renewed over the last couple of books, including Red Mist, released in New Zealand this week. “Switching back to the first person perspective was quite important, because it gave me a renewed sense of energy,” says Cornwell, who credits Scarpetta and the way she looks at things as “the one thing I have that nobody else does”.
Cornwell, who discovered a fascination for crime writing when she was on the police beat as a young reporter in North Carolina – even going so far as to later take a job at the medical examiner’s office to learn more about “a world that most people had never seen” – says she aims to come up with something new or different from a forensic or investigative standpoint for each novel. In Red Mist, it is the type of killing which is unusual, if chillingly believable.
But while she may have sparked the forensic fiction ‘sub-genre’ that has since swept through books, TV, and film – opening up the world of pathology and autopsy to mass audiences – Cornwell says it is Scarpetta and her point of view, rather than forensics, that is really “the centrepiece” of her books. “How does she look at things, how does she work a case, how does she go about her business? It really is about this character.”
Despite Red Mist being her nineteenth Scarpetta tale, on top of five other thrillers, a children’s book, and four works of non-fiction, Cornwell says ideas are never an issue, thanks to her passion for research. “As long as I go out into the world and do things, as opposed to just sitting in my office and writing, there are so many things I can get ideas from.” Instead, the challenge is to tell a story that “is really fresh, interesting, and has a lot of energy”.
To do that, she looks for an idea that truly captivates her – “if I’m not interested in it, then you’re not going to be interested in it” – comparing the selection process to flicking through photos and finding the one that “just seems to leap out at you”, that transcends just being an image of something to be an art form with real life to it. “That’s the way I feel about an idea. I’ll be doing some kind of research, and all of a sudden it’s like the lights are brighter, and it gets bigger, and seems to leap out at you. It might be a weapon someone shows me, something someone says to me, an adventure I’ve gone on and something happens to me. It’s a feeling you get where something becomes bigger than itself.”
Red Mist, which sees Scarpetta travelling to Savannah, Georgia – a town draped in history and Spanish moss – to meet a high-security prisoner perhaps holding answers about the murder of her deputy, came from Cornwell wanting to put Scarpetta in a place she doesn’t belong, to see what happens. “It’s almost like she’s entering a very gothic world of swamps and marshlands and places that are isolated and remote. She’s out of her comfort zone. I just know that something really bad is going to happen, because she shouldn’t be there.”
While there is plenty of visual storytelling in Red Mist, a novel which shows Cornwell is back to her best, Scarpetta fans may soon get an even clearer visual representation of the popular heroine; Oscar winner Angelina Jolie is tabbed to play the fearless medical examiner in a big screen adaptation. Cornwell is cautiously hopeful this project – the latest in a long line of several attempts to bring Scarpetta to the screen – will come to fruition. “The very best people in the business are involved right now,” she says, noting an original screenplay is in the works. “I don’t want to count on it too much until there’s something really tangible, but it is the most optimistic I’ve felt, and obviously when you have an actress of Angelina Jolie’s calibre, if she did it, it would be really amazing to see what she did with this character.”