Crime novels are among the most popular reading in the U.S., and nobody writes a more engaging, suspenseful and factually accurate story than award-winning and best-selling novelist Patricia Cornwell. Her Kay Scarpetta series is full of detailed forensic information, and we talked to her about how she gathers her facts and actually experiences some of the dangerous situations that she puts her heroine through in her books.
- Patricia Cornwell, crime novelist, author of Flesh and Blood
Links for Additional Info:
15-29 The Story Behind the Crime Novel
Marty Peterson: Crime and mystery novels are some of the most popular books on library and bookstore shelves. We love to read about a murder or a heist being pulled off by the villain and watch as the detectives piece together the evidence and finally catch the perpetrator – or sometimes not. Some of the best novels contain detailed accounts of how the evidence is collected and tested, and how the autopsy of the victim in a murder can sometimes reveal clues as to how the killing was pulled off – and by whom. Award-winning and best-selling writer Patricia Cornwell is one of the masters of the genre, and her stories of forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta are always popular among mystery fans. Her latest addition to the series is titled “Flesh and Blood.” We talked to Cornwell to find out how she writes her books, where her ideas come from and what kinds of research she does to make the mystery come alive. She says that it’s that research into the tiniest details of forensics that gives her the ideas she uses to plot her novels…
Patricia Cornwell: I’m a little bit like a method actor. I throw myself into the next project as if I’m the character herself, and I go off and do all kinds of research. So, for example, in Flesh and Blood, I went out to Texas on three different occasions, out to these very big firing rangers where they have snipers and SWAT people training and all this. And I went out with experts and some police friends of mine to experiment with very high-tech weapons and ammunition and all sorts of things to do the research to come up with very unusual shooting cases that implement the newest things that are being done out there – for better or for worse. And I hadn’t scuba dived in about 20 years, so I got recertified and got my advanced training and began diving the Bermuda Triangle, shipwrecks off the coast of South Florida winding all the way around to Bermuda because the grand finale in Flesh and Blood is this dive scene at the end where Scarpetta goes 100 feet under the water and at the bottom of the ocean has an encounter that is absolutely shocking and horrible as you’re going to discover eventually.
Peterson: Cornwell is a helicopter pilot, as is Scarpetta’s niece Lucy, another recurring character in the novels …
Cornwell: So I go out to do flying and try to do recons, flights to various place I’m going to show you so that when my characters are flying in Lucy’s helicopter to a certain scene, I show you what it looks like, I show you what it feels like. I want, basically, to put the readers into the adventure as if they are living it as it is going on.
Peterson: Cornwell also has experience in the autopsy room and in recreating different types of injuries…
Cornwell: I’ve also seen thousands of autopsies in my career, worked in a medical examiner’s office for six years, so I know how to answer questions. I have a great network of amazing consultants, the real people who do the real work, so if I want to ask a question to make sure I have the forensic details exactly right of what a particular injury would look like, and I do some of my own tests. For example, one of the things I did on the firing ranges is I got a ballistic gelatin dummy and I dressed him up in scuba gear, put him about a thousand yards down range and we took out the air tank with a high-powered rifle to see what, exactly, would happen if you penetrated an air tank that had 3,000 pounds per square inch of pressure in it. In other words, if the scuba diver were shot while on the surface of the water, I wanted to see what would occur. And in doing so, I had a very good idea of what questions to ask about what sorts of injuries this person would have in addition to the obvious gunshot wound.
Peterson: It’s not enough to fill a story full of medical, ballistics and trace evidence. Cornwell says that the cat-and-mouse game – the real detective work – has to be front and center to make the story come alive, and make the reader care about the characters, their successes and failures and their relationships with each other…
Cornwell: The forensics are great but it’s the human factor of how do these people go about trying to find somebody like this, and how do they protect themselves, how do they feel, what is this doing to them? That’s the other layers to the story.
Peterson: There are a lot of shows on television like “Forensic Files,” “CSI,” and “Criminal Minds” that show us how evidence is collected, tested and used by police and prosecutors to catch and convict criminals. Aren’t these depictions and novels like Cornwell’s a primer on how to get away with murder?
Cornwell: No, as a matter of fact I have a huge fan club of people in prison and not so long ago I was visiting a women’s prison and I could not believe all of the fans that I had. I felt like a little rock star walking through. And I thought, obviously none of you read my books very well or you probably wouldn’t be here. So I don’t really think my books inspire people to get away with crimes or help them to get away with crimes. I think, actually, the best thing that can happen from people reading my books is that they’re better informed as jurors because I tell you the truth, I show you the real tests that would actually be used as opposed to a lot of television shows that can get away with creative license in a way that I can’t. Now, I don’t criticize them for that, but it does misinform people if they’re making decisions about real criminal cases if they think some of the things I see on TV are the way it really works out there because, for the most part, it doesn’t.
Peterson: Cornwell admits, though, that helping jurors understand the science behind criminal detection is a double-edged sword. Not only does it make them more knowledgeable about forensics, it also leads them to expect DNA, fingerprint or ballistics evidence to solve every crime…
Cornwell: That’s an excellent point and a really big problem because really great cases are also worked with circumstantial evidence, and there’s an old saying in the lab, “Don’t put your whole case in the lab coat pocket.” In other words, don’t 100 percent depend just on the DNA results. There are so many other factors that go into showing what somebody did and why they did it. There’s other types of evidence that you can test. There’s also the circumstantial evidence of witnesses say, and someone’s lifestyle, and where they were at the time the crime occurred. All that should be factored into it. It’s what I call “introducing the human element” where we have to go out and do some work. And it gets really easy to not investigate a case very thoroughly thinking DNA is going to win it for you. And then if that doesn’t work so well you are left with nothing.
Peterson: Even when forensics are used in a real-life case, Cornwell says it’s not always the “magic bullet” to solving the crime. She says that autopsy findings, ballistics and fingerprints at the scene can often be interpreted in several ways…
Cornwell: Well, in many cases forensic science cannot tell you the manner of death. In other words, was it an accident, suicide or a homicide? Then you could take a shooting that is not a homicide but the forensic evidence is not going to tell you anything different than a shooting that was a homicide, depending on what type of case it is. And so you need the investigation of looking for motive, looking for a lot of different things that might give you a different answer to the question. So without proper investigation of what I call the human element, sometimes the interpretation of the scientific evidence is not correct. While the evidence may tell you there’s gunshot residue, the explanation for why it’s there may not be the one that you’re thinking of.
Peterson: Because of the authenticity and the “you are there” feelings that Cornwell wants her readers to experience from her books, the writer has her finger on the pulse of forensics and crime solving. So we asked her how the science of detection is progressing, and what might be in store for crime fighters – and crime novelists – in the future…
Cornwell: I think that there’s a lot of interesting things going on, not the least of which is what’s being done with computer technology, with imaging technology. For example, the advent of the CT scanner that can produce 3-dimensional images in an autopsy before a blade is ever taken to the body. Once you cut open a body, if you cut into the wrong place you may mess up a wound track or cause some sort of problem that wasn’t there before and with this new technology you can envision what’s there and then, almost with GPS precision, you can go to the areas that you need to actually dissect. And so I think we’re going to see a lot more done with imaging, with forensic light sources. DNA continues to improve. The problem you run into with that, the more sensitive it gets the more it’s also vulnerable to contamination. Because, again, it may be scientifically accurate that someone’s DNA is on a coffee cup, but is there some other reason it’s there? Maybe they washed that coffee cup the day before and touched it, and it’s not because they were the person who committed the crime. So with all of these advents of new technology, there’s also a lot of responsibility and training that needs to go along with it. But I don’t think we’re going to see some magic box down the road the can solve cases in a way that we haven’t seen before. It still takes human beings using these disciplines as tools.
Peterson: You can find out how cutting edge forensic science and old-fashioned detective work solve a baffling crime in Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta novel, Flesh and Blood, available at bookstores and online. You can also visit the author’s website at Patricia Cornwell.com. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Nick Hofstra and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I’ll send you periodic updates about the podcast.