Patricia Cornwell

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Charles Champlin (review date 11 February 1990)

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SOURCE: Champlin, Charles. “Bloody Sunday.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (11 February 1990): 5.

[In the following positive excerpt, Champlin discusses Cornwell's attention to scientific detail in Postmortem.]

Patricia Daniels Cornwell was a crime reporter on the Charlotte Observer who then became a computer analyst in the chief medical examiner's office in Virginia. Her only previous book was a biography of Mrs. Billy Graham. For her first mystery, Postmortem, she has created a protagonist, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, who is, conveniently enough, Virginia's chief medical examiner.

The police are confronting a serial rapist, following a forensic trial in which the computer is massively involved. Cornwell trots out her expertise in dazzling and occasionally bewildering fashion. But the specifics are fascinating, as work well-described always is, whether it's Dick Francis at the track or Amanda Cross on campus.

Dr. Scarpetta has a terrible time with the chauvinists around her, one of whom in particular is malevolently eager for her to fail. These passages have the ring of truth as experienced, and so does the portrait of an investigative reporter who abets the solving. (Cornwell has mastered the writer's lesson of starting with what you know best.)

Remarkably, the novel is about the tracking down, not the culprit, who turns out to be as anonymous as a bus rider, even though he nearly adds Scarpetta to his scorecard. The story is based loosely on an actual serial killer in Richmond, and Scarpetta evidently has a real-life model in the medical examiner's office. Whatever its inspirations, Postmortem is a first-rate first thriller, and I hope to run into Dr. Scarpetta again.


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Patricia Cornwell 1956-

(Full name Patricia Daniels Cornwell) American novelist and biographer.

The following entry presents an overview of Cornwell's career through 2000.

Cornwell is an award-winning novelist of forensic mysteries and police procedurals that focus on medical autopsies and investigations. Her novels are characterized by the graphic authenticity of their detail and their compelling psychological studies of professionals at work. Cornwell has helped expand the role of the female detective in the mystery genre with her two recurring heroines—medical examiner Kay Scarpetta and police chief Judy Hammer. Cornwell's first novel in her Scarpetta series, Postmortem (1990), was the only novel to ever win the Edgar, Creasy, Anthony, and Macavity awards for best first crime novel, and the French Prix du Roman d’Aventure award all in the same year.

Biographical Information

Cornwell was born on June 9, 1956, in Miami, Florida, to Sam and Marilyn Zenner Daniels. Her parents divorced when Cornwell was five years old, and her mother moved Cornwell and her two brothers to Montreat, North Carolina. By the time Cornwell was nine, her mother was suffering from severe clinical depression. Unable to cope, she turned her children over to her Montreat neighbors, the Reverend and Mrs. Billy Graham. Ruth Graham put the children into foster care with a missionary couple who had recently returned from the Congo. In 1979 Cornwell graduated from Davidson College in North Carolina with a bachelor of arts in English. She began work as a police reporter for the Charlotte Observer and, in 1980, married Charles Cornwell, a Davidson College professor of English. She would later win an investigative reporting award from the North Carolina Press Association for a series of articles on prostitution. In 1981 Cornwell and her husband moved to Richmond, Virginia, so Charles could train to become a minister. During this period, Cornwell began working with her husband to expand a newspaper profile that she had written on Ruth Graham into her first book, A Time for Remembering: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham (1983), which...

(This entire section contains 866 words.)

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won the Gold Medallion Book Award for biography from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. At the time, Cornwell was also working at the Chief Medical Examiner's office in Richmond and volunteering as a weekend police officer. Cornwell was divorced from her husband in 1990, the same year she publishedPostmortem, her first mystery novel. In addition to the critical awards she received for Postmortem, Cornwell also received the Golden Dagger award from the British Crime Writers Association for Cruel and Unusual (1993).

Major Works

The first novel in Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series, Postmortem, focuses on the rape and murder of several Richmond women by a serial killer. The plot follows the work of Dr. Scarpetta, the chief medical examiner of Virginia, as she attempts to uncover the killer's identity. Frequently faced with sexism regarding her ability to handle a “man's job,” Scarpetta ably displays her knowledge of the innovative technologies of modern forensic medicine to solve the case. The character of Scarpetta was inspired by the accumulation of the research and training Cornwell received while working in Richmond's Chief Medical Examiner's office. Scarpetta serves as the protagonist in several other Cornwell mysteries including Body of Evidence (1992), The Body Farm (1994), and The Last Precinct (2000). Throughout the series, Scarpetta struggles with balancing her career and personal life. She routinely solves mysteries using the most up-to-date forensic equipment and receiving help from Lt. Marino, an old police colleague, and Lucy, her computer-savvy teenage niece. During her investigations, Scarpetta attracts the attention of a psychotic serial killer named Temple Gault, who was introduced in Cruel and Unusual and became a recurring character in the series. Gault is cunning and sadistic, with a knowledge of forensic science that rivals Scarpetta's own. In Hornet's Nest (1997), Cornwell introduced a new protagonist, Judy Hammer, the chief of police in Charlotte, North Carolina. Hammer and her deputy Virginia West are assigned to protect a reporter/volunteer policeman, Andy Brazil, as he follows them around their daily patrols through the city. Hammer also serves as the heroine of Southern Cross (1998) and Isle of Dogs (2001). The Hammer mysteries are more character-driven and satirical than the Scarpetta novels, focusing less on scientific detail and more on the day-to-day experiences of a local police force.

Critical Reception

Critics have consistently praised Cornwell's attention to scientific detail in her Scarpetta novels, particularly in Postmortem and The Body Farm. Many reviewers have argued that Cornwell's attention to the minutiae of police work and her realistic portrayal of forensic investigations make her mysteries more plausible and engaging than the work of many of her peers. However, as the series has progressed, critical praise for the Scarpetta books has declined considerably. A number of critics have complained that the Scarpetta characters have become predicable and the plots formulaic. Nicholas Blincoe has commented that “the Kay Scarpetta of Black Notice (1999) is a Kay in decline, whose author doesn't control her with devices such as motivation or plausibility.” Cornwell's second series of mysteries—The Hammer books—has met with a mixed response by reviewers and audiences alike. Some commentators have criticized the Hammer characters for lacking depth, and noted that Cornwell's use of the third person narrative in the series makes the prose seem static and distant.

Joan Hamerman Robbins (review date 7 July 1991)

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SOURCE: Robbins, Joan Hamerman. “Living Dangerously.” Women's Review of Books 8, nos. 10–11 (7 July 1991): 32.

[In the following review, Robbins examines the role of the professional female sleuth in the mystery genre and how Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta fits into that tradition.]

I'm a novice reader of detective fiction, drawn in by my curiosity about the new women private investigators I'd heard about: Sharon McCone, Kinsey Millhone and V. I. Warshawski. Women professionals, all earning their livelihood by solving crimes. New independent, hard-working female role models.

As I've read in this genre, I've discovered that professional female sleuths also include attorneys, chief medical examiners and police officers. None of these women is sitting on the sidelines, waiting for adventure to overcome boredom. Each is actively engaged in her life. While concerned with the traditional issues of detective fiction—getting to the truth, righting the balance between justice and injustice, championing the underdog—these new professionals, especially the lesbians, are leading us into new dimensions. They are politicizing the genre, directing our attention to the violence and misogyny that underline women's lives.

Body of Evidence is my first acquaintance with Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond, Virginia. (There is one previous Scarpetta mystery, Postmortem.) Patricia Cornwell creates a fast-paced, well-written, exciting story. Kay Scarpetta is hunting for the murderer of Beryl Madison; as she and her detective colleague Pete Marino follow clues left at the scene, they are led to a fascinating tangle of disturbed relationships between people, including Kay herself and her former lover, Mark James.

Cornwell doesn't hide her own beliefs, though she conveys them with subtlety—for example, addressing the limitations of narrow-mindedness via a bristling exchange about homophobia between Scarpetta and Marino. She also invites the reader to take a broader view of mental illness and crimes of intense and uncontrolled passion:

Once you can envision yourself doing something, once you can relate to the mechanism behind the deed, the door is cracked. It can happen. Virtually every heinous event that occurs in this world was first conceived in thought.

(p. 220)

Kay is a stellar example of a woman using her knowledge, good training and skill in pursuing the evidence wherever it leads. I learned some interesting details about a coroner's job and crime lab research, where knowledge blends with talent to extract usable clues from scraps of clothing and bits of charred paper. Scientific and precise at her work, Kay is also comfortable with her intuition. She agrees with her male boss that sometimes it can be dangerous to rely on intuition. But, she reminds him, “it can also be very dangerous when people begin to make things too complicated. Murder is usually depressingly simple.”

Kay strikes a good balance between being vulnerable and being strong. She's uncomfortable about the sensitivities aroused by seeing Mark again after a fifteen-year hiatus. “I wanted to see Mark,” she admits. “I realized it wasn't a professional necessity, but a weakness that I had believed I had completely overcome. I was alternately thrilled and disgusted with myself.”

While she and Pete Marino are examining the home of the murdered woman, Kay remarks that for Beryl Madison “defending herself was not a reflex. Her only reflex was to run.” Later, when the murderer enters her own house, Kay demonstrates her ability to defend herself. She is hyper-alert to all the potential weapons lying about and doesn't hesitate to use any of them.

But she repeats a depressing pattern evident in several other heterosexual women sleuths. These women find relationships with men, especially male lovers, unsatisfying and filled with problems. While in both fiction and real life many women complain about many men's inability to sustain intimacy, its appearance in the mystery genre not only reinforces a negative stereotype but suggests the difficulties some women authors have in envisioning more positive alternatives. Rarely are we treated to a solid heterosexual relationship in which both partners work at living and loving together. And it's tiresome to have the male colleague whose cooperation is often essential to solving the crime be such a pain in the ass. In a way, this repeats another familiar stereotype: men are unable to show their vulnerable, caring side directly. You have to wade through a lot of sarcasm before the heart that really beats inside each of these guys is revealed.

Principal Works

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A Time for Remembering: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham [with Charles Cornwell] (biography) 1983

Postmortem (novel) 1990

All That Remains (novel) 1992

Body of Evidence (novel) 1992

Cruel and Unusual (novel) 1993

The Body Farm (novel) 1994

From Potter's Field (novel) 1995

Cause of Death (novel) 1996

Hornet's Nest (novel) 1997

Ruth, A Portrait: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham (biography) 1997

Unnatural Exposure (novel) 1997

Point of Origin (novel) 1998

Southern Cross (novel) 1998

Black Notice (novel) 1999

The Last Precinct (novel) 2000

Isle of Dogs (novel) 2001

Charles Champlin (review date 20 September 1992)

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SOURCE: Champlin, Charles. “Criminal Pursuits.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (20 September 1992): 8.

[In the following positive excerpt, Champlin explores Cornwell's detailed use of forensic procedures in All That Remains.]

Patricia Cornwell has taken a controlling interest in the latest sub-genre of crime fiction: forensic procedurals. Cornwell's third novel about Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Richmond's chief medical examiner (All That Remains, is already a best-seller, offered by three book clubs and two audiocassette firms.

As before, the abundant forensic detail, rich this time in the eloquent revelations of microscopic fibers and DNA analysis of blood and tissue, has a lurid fascination along with its impressive testimony about the new tools crime-solvers have on their side. Dick Tracy's wrist radio no longer quite measures up.

A serial killer, operating over a period of years, with interruptions, has been knocking off couples, including a pair of young women, leaving them shoeless, bound and with a playing card as his trademark.

One recent victim is the daughter of a high-placed government woman, which puts uncommon and meddlesome pressure on Scarpetta, who is linked to the on-scene investigations through her friendship with Marino, a homicide detective. She is also den mother to a troubled niece and a woman reporter who is obsessively doing a book on the murders.

One of the possibilities, born of a gas credit card found near one of the victims, leads to the CIA and the specter of an agent who has let covert operations go to his head.

The tracking down is patient and almost continually surprising in both its small disappointments and partial triumphs for Scarpetta and company. The ending, with its one-two punch, is at once dramatic, inevitable, tragic and surprising.

But the larger significance of the book is that Cornwell seems to get better and better, surer in her delineations of characters and relationships, subtler in her plotting (serial killers are, so to speak, a dime a dozen in fiction these days; Cornwell makes hers only too credible).

First-person is always tricky; you are virtually certain the narrator has lived to tell about it. More than that, the narrator must always be there, or the story all takes place offstage. Cornwell has figured out how to free Scarpetta from the cadaver tables and get her out into the world. She is also making Scarpetta increasingly a woman of sensibility and deep concerns, able to be tough-minded, independent and soft-hearted at the same time.

The Scarpetta series is one of the best.

There's nothing like writing about what you know. Cornwell has been a police reporter and worked in the medical examiner's office in Richmond.

Further Reading

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Blincoe, Nicholas. “A Question of Time.” London Observer (28 February 1999): 12.

Blincoe offers a mixed assessment of Southern Cross, discussing Cornwell's shift from writing forensic mysteries to more lighthearted fare.

De Haven, Tom. “Hornet's Nest.Entertainment Weekly, no. 361 (10 January 1997): 50.

De Haven offers a negative assessment of Hornet's Nest.

Delman, David. “The Latest, but Not the Best, from Cornwell.” Philadelphia Inquirer (8 August 1999): H01.

Delman offers a negative assessment of Black Notice and Cornwell's handling of her character Kay Scarpetta throughout the series.

Kent, Bill. “Thrillers.” Washington Post Book World 28, no. 32 (9 August 1998): 4.

Kent praises Cornwell's talent for exploring medical procedures, but criticizes the unsatisfying plot of Point of Origin.

O'Donoghue, Heather. “More Problems for Dr Scarpetta.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4932 (10 October 1997): 24.

O'Donoghue offers a mixed assessment of Unnatural Exposure, noting that the novel's romantic relationships are “disastrously unconvincing.”

Raphael, Lev. “Internal Struggle Brings Series Alive.” Detroit Free Press (27 October 2000): 2G.

Raphael offers a positive assessment of The Last Precinct, complimenting the emotional complexity that Cornwell brings to her lead character, Kay Scarpetta.

Sutherland, John. “Marksmanship.” London Review of Books 18 (14 November 1996): 24–25.

Sutherland examines From Potter's Field and Cause of Death, as well as discussing Cornwell's decision to leave Scribner, her original publisher.

Additional coverage of Cornwell's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 16; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 134; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 53; Contemporary Popular Writers; Contemporary Southern Writers; DISCovering Authors: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Mystery and Suspense Writers; and St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers.

Eva Schegulla (review date summer 1993)

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SOURCE: Schegulla, Eva. “Thriller.” The Armchair Detective 26, no. 3 (summer 1993): 118.

[In the following review, Schegulla offers a positive assessment of Cruel and Unusual.]

Dr. Kay Scarpetta performs an autopsy on Ronnie Joe Waddell, a convicted murderer executed by electric chair. The same night, a young boy is murdered and left in the same position as Waddell left his victim, ten years earlier. Shortly thereafter, a psychic with a connection to Ronnie Joe is murdered, and then, Scarpetta's assistant, Susan Story. Fingerprints from the sites lead back to the executed man.

To save her job and her reputation, Scarpetta enters a maze of scandal, intrigue, conspiracy, pay-offs, computer hacking, questionable identities and luminol. She is assisted by her teenage niece, Lucy, her friends Lt. Marino and FBI agent Benton Wesley—and by one of her former professors, Nicholas Grueman, with whom she frequently locked horns in the past.

Although the references to the psychic's profession and possible connection to witchcraft are vague and not followed through, [Cruel and Unusual] is a page-turner. Cornwell manages to build up the conspiracy against Kay as well, stopping short of an Oliver Stone-type of suffocation. Scarpetta's fight to retain her independence and integrity is beautifully handled. Also well drawn are her growing respect and understanding of both her niece's fight to retain her own independence and integrity, and for Grueman's belief in her capabilities and his way of forcing her to work to her top potential. Cornwell's clean, clear descriptions and crisp style can keep even the graphics of an autopsy from being queasily grotesque.

Bettina Berch (review date fall 1993)

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SOURCE: Berch, Bettina. “Cruel and Unusual.Belles Lettres 9, no. 1 (fall 1993): 37.

[In the following review, Berch compares Cruel and Unusual to Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs.]

Do not start this book when you are expecting house-guests for the weekend or the night before tax returns are due. Save it for your first week of giving up cigarettes or that day when every single thing in the house is broken. Save Cruel and Unusual for when you just want to be left alone in your room with a good book.

Vaguely reminiscent of The Silence of the Lambs,Cruel and Unusual is the story of Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a Richmond (Virginia) Chief medical examiner, and the serial killer she is trying to stop. Scarpetta is not simply a female version of the hard-boiled private eye of yore—neither is she the “feminist” soft-boiled type. She does not come across as a type at all. She is dignified and highly professional. Her unemotional style is odd, but endearing. She is a loner, but not the kind who calls your attention to the fact every few pages. She works too much, but takes it for granted. And yes, forensic pathology is ugly work, but she believes in it. As she explains, “What we learn from the dead is for the benefit of the living, and justice is for those left behind.”

The plot of Cruel and Unusual, starting with a state-sponsored execution, which then triggers a somehow related series of murders, is too complicated and interesting for brief summation. But before long, Scarpetta finds herself before a grand jury, trying to explain why she withdrew large sums of money from her bank account, money later found in the drawer of her murdered assistant.

Yes, tension can be pleasurably absorbing, but Cornwell offers readers something even more narcotic: a world where women are assumed—by themselves, and by others—to be utterly competent people. For all Scarpetta's faults—she is as emotionally unavailable as most men and as self-incarcerated as many actual prisoners—she does not have a chip on her shoulder, like some of her sister sleuths. Scarpetta is beyond trying to prove she is as good as the boys: she knows she is smart. Her sidekick niece, Lucy, is even smarter.

And me, I'm hooked.

Charles Champlin (review date 4 September 1994)

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SOURCE: Champlin, Charles. “Criminal Pursuits.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (4 September 1994): 18.

[In the following excerpt, Champlin discusses Cornwell's use of scientific detail in The Body Farm, as well as the difficulties her female characters seem to have in maintaining romantic relationships.]

In The Body Farm Patricia Cornwell extends the adventures of Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Richmond's medical examiner, currently on detached service to lend the FBI some forensic know-how. A child in a remote North Carolina hill town has been brutally murdered, possibly by a serial killer named Gault, who narrowly eluded Scarpetta once before.

No one can accuse Cornwell of skimping on illustrative detail. This is probably the grisliest of the five Scarpetta novels, including an exhumation. The farm of the title is the University of Tennessee's Decay Research Facility, which works on cadavers to yield ways of determining times of death with ever-greater accuracy—an important crime-solving tool.

More than putrefaction is afoot, however. The murder is not quite as it seems; Scarpetta's old cop pal Marino is an emotional mess, and Scarpetta's difficult niece Lucy is working computers at the FBI's Quantico center, where Scarpetta, like Cornwell, spends a lot of time. Lucy, seduced and betrayed by another woman, provides a peculiarly affecting subplot to the search for the child-killer.

Lucy's woes suggest that Cornwell is airing some of her own feelings about the difficulties of being a strong woman in a man's world. Her few lovers, Scarpetta muses, had been formidable but sensitive men, who could accept that “I was the body and sensibilities of a woman with the power and drive of a man.” None of the new breed of women sleuths have said it more succinctly.

The new book is not least an anthem to the FBI, which Cornwell indicates has come a far piece from J. Edgar Hoover. For all its gamy images, Cornwell again makes forensics engrossing if occasionally bewildering. “If she drowned,” Scarpetta says crisply, “there should be edema fluid in the alveolar spaces with disproportionate autolytic change of the respiratory epithelium.” The same thought occurred to me.

But at last the piling up of microscopic facts, and the Holmesian deductions they trigger, help build uncommon suspense and tension. Cornwell knows her stuff, alveolar spaces but the soul as well, and how to make a story. The ending leaves a mystery solved, but threads remain that will lead to another novel, I'm sure.

Dinitia Smith (review date 11 September 1994)

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SOURCE: Smith, Dinitia. “Death and Its Details.” Washington Post Book World 24, no. 37 (11 September 1994): 8.

[In the following mixed review, Smith praises Cornwell's use of scientific detail in The Body Farm, but criticizes the novel's lack of character development and grim tone.]

Child abuse. Serial killers. Death by autoerotic asphyxiation. Structure Query language for computers. A crime scene covered entirely in Super Glue. The Body Farm, Patricia Cornwell's fifth novel featuring the brilliant, feminist Chief Medical Examiner of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Kay Scarpetta, has them all.

After getting off to a jump start with an opening scene startlingly reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs—Kay jogging through the mud at FBI headquarters in Quantico, Va.—The Body Farm sets a smooth and mostly satisfying course.

In Black Mountain, N.C., an 11-year-old, Emily Steiner, has been murdered, and it looks like the work of the dreadful serial killer, Temple Brooks Gault. Gault specializes in murdering children, first tying them up, then mutilating them. Not only is Kay Scarpetta a doctor; she's also a lawyer. This looks like a case for her.

Temple Gault is a crafty, elusive figure. Once, in a previous novel, Kay even came close enough to Gault to touch him, “for a flicker before he had fled through a window and was gone.” Ever since, she hasn't been able to shake the “chill of doubt” that has settled over her spirit—what more could she have done to capture him? Perhaps because of her failure, Temple Gault is still at large, wreaking havoc.

Off to Black Mountain Kay goes. Of course there are complications. She begins a love affair with a fellow law-enforcement officer, Benton Wesley. But Benton is married, to Connie. Then, one of the other officers on the case is found dead of autoerotic asphyxiation; the male cop's body is clad in a bra and panties. Nothing is as it seems. By page 101, Kay notices an odd mark on the dead child's body. The skilled Cornwell packs that detail away neatly for further consideration. Eventually, Kay arranges to have evidence from the case sent to the wonderfully named Dr. Lyall Shade, head of the University of Tennessee's Decay Research Facility—The Body Farm, as it is known—for further analysis.

All the while, Cornwell juggles another plot. Kay's niece Lucy is doing top secret computer work at the FBI. Kay has noticed that Lucy seems to be having lesbian longings—at least she is giving a female colleague loving looks. Then Lucy is accused of breaching FBI security, and to top it all, she starts drinking too much. (Why does lesbianism in popular novels so often seem to lead to alcoholism?)

Patricia Cornwell, before she became a best-selling mystery author, was a biographer of Billy Graham's wife, Ruth, and an award-winning police reporter. Cornwell has done her research in medical examiners' offices, and this book shows the results of her hard work. There are many wonderfully odd details—about fingerprint inversion, the way metal oxidizes on flesh and especially about spraying a murder victim's room from top to bottom with Super Glue to search for clues. “Every surface in the room was lightly frosted with it, including Ferguson's body,” Cornwell writes. There's also a truly interesting disquisition on duct tape—its color, its fire retardant properties, its yarn count, (warp and woof) and all of its malevolent uses. “I honestly could not pass by a roll of it in hardware or grocery stores without household thoughts turning into remembered horrors,” says Kay. Yes indeed! Cornwell almost convinces you she's been to medical school, too, as occasionally Kay treats the living—tenderly binding her lover's cuts and wounds.

But even for a police procedural, The Body Farm is grim—in one scene Kay takes the rectal temperature of a dead colleague, then scrutinizes his used condom with an unblinking eye. There is also a description of the fuzzy mold that grows on a dead child's body after exhumation. But Cornwell presents the attributes of death and decay in such a cool, precise manner that we are distanced from them. And sometimes she even creates a kind of poetry out of it all. “A crime scene has a life of its own,” Kay says. “It remembers trauma in soil, insects altered by body fluids and plants trampled by feet. It loses its privacy just as any witness does.” Later, as Kay approaches The Body Farm: “I thought of the River Styx. I thought of crossing the water and ending up in that place … I thanked them in my mind, for the dead were silent armies I mustered to save us all.”

The problem with the novel comes with its thin characterizations—both Kay and her lover, Wesley, are mostly just words on the page. You can tell love is coming, for instance, when “He turned his eyes to me, and I thought they seemed uncommonly dark, his mouth set as if it had never known how to smile.” Cornwell does seem to be trying for a deeper characterization of Kay here in her portrayal of Kay's relationship with her narcissistic sister and annoying mother—but mostly Kay is a well-reported cipher who doesn't really exist in the flesh. We know from P. D. James that police procedurals can have the style to match any literary form. Maybe part of the problem with The Body Farm is that, just as Nazis and Communists have worn out their usefulness as bad guys in spy thrillers, the subject of child abuse in mystery novels is an exhausted one.

Without giving the plot away, let it be said that the mystery does take an ingenious course—though at the end the twin strands of Cornwell's story come to a rather unsatisfying conjunction. But then, maybe Cornwell is just trying to keep her characters at large for yet another sequel.

Maureen Corrigan (review date 20 August 1995)

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SOURCE: Corrigan, Maureen. “Mysteries.” Washington Post Book World 25 (20 August 1995): 11.

[In the following mixed review, Corrigan discusses From Potter's Field and the weariness Cornwell's characters seem to be developing as the Scarpetta series progresses.]

The trouble with fictional serial killers is that, after a few appearances, they start to become known quantities, sort of like noxious relatives threatening another visit rather than the inscrutable, and therefore terrifying, phantasms of evil they should be. Even Hannibal Lecter, surely one of the most insidious embodiments of evil ever to appear in fiction or film, gets a laugh from his audience when, at the end of Silence of the Lambs, he announces: “I'm having a friend for dinner.” We've been with him for so long that even though he appalls us by his grazing habits, he's also begun to beguile us with his wit and charm.

Temple Brooks Gault has been dogging the heels of Virginia's chief medical examiner, Kay Scarpetta, for some time now, and familiarity with his personal quirks and murderous modus operandi has bred some complacency. We know about his Dennis Rodman-like penchant for changing his hair color and his twisted predilection for posing his victims like rag dolls. In From Potter's Field the latest Scarpetta mystery by Patricia Cornwell, we meet Gault's dysfunctional parents and learn about his rocky childhood. With each new piece of illuminating information, Gault's shadowy menace shrinks a tad. Since he's not ever going to become Scarpetta's ally and he's becoming less and less of an invisible monster, there's only one thing Cornwell can do with Gault, and in From Potter's Field she does it. Gault's grisly final exit makes the watery demise of that ur-serial villain, Prof. Moriarty, look positively dignified.

From Potter's Field begins with a Christmas Eve phone call from FBI agent Benton Wesley alerting Scarpetta and her police sidekick, Capt. Pete Marino, that Gault has struck again in New York's Central Park. The three comrades-in-arms immediately helicopter up from Virginia to survey the eerie crime scene—a snowy, isolated section of the park where the naked female victim sits propped up against a frozen fountain. “I was accustomed to witnesses who didn't speak to anyone but me,” reflects Scarpetta as she pieces together the story of the victim's fatal encounter. But, as she closes in on Gault, he's closing on her.

Stopping at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan for a quiet Christmas dinner with Wesley, Scarpetta discovers that Gault has been a regular customer, paying for his meals with her stolen credit card. Then Scarpetta realizes her home has been under surveillance by Gault and, worst of all, he invades the sanctum sanctorum of her morgue when he sends her a holiday present of a fresh corpse complete with a jolly Ho! Ho! Ho! note. Scarpetta briefly considers disappearing into a witness protection program before she seizes the offensive and, with Wesley, Marino and her computer-nerd niece Lucy, tracks Gault into the bowels of the New York subway system.

From Potter's Field deftly manages to keep a number of suspenseful sub-plots spinning in the air at once. Besides the lurking spectre of Gault, Scarpetta is also threatened by garden-variety crooks with homicide on their minds. CAIN, the worldwide criminal computer network that Lucy helped invent, has gone haywire: It's sending bizarre messages about Gault's victims to baffled law enforcement agencies. And Lucy's old lover-nemesis, Carrie Grethen, turns up in a new, more sinister guise. These creepy complications, combined with the downright macabre atmosphere of this tale, much of which takes place in deserted morgues and labyrinthine subway tunnels, make From Potter's Field a frantic and, at times, surreal thriller. But it must be noted that Gault is not the only character whose schtick has become predictable. Marino's buffoonish reactions to ethnics, blacks and lesbians like Lucy has turned him into a walking stereotype of white male backlash. Similarly, Scarpetta's illicit romance with Wesley has dragged on way too long: Instead of igniting erotic fireworks, they spend most of their time together wallowing in guilt. Scarpetta needs to meet a nice guy who's not already married or dead (which, given her line of work, is hard to do). Now that Gault won't be taking up her free time, maybe she can get out of that morgue and mingle.

Jonathan Coe (review date 1 October 1995)

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SOURCE: Coe, Jonathan. “Killers on the Loose.” London Observer (1 October 1995): 15.

[In the following review, Coe compares Stephen King's Rose Madder to Cornwell's From Potter's Field.]

‘Terror,’ wrote Stephen King in 1981, ‘often arises from a pervasive sense of disestablishment; that things are in the unmaking.’ Since this is also a sense that seems to dominate the best ‘literary’ novels of the late twentieth century, it's not hard to see why the horror novel is in the ascendant, and is being treated more and more seriously by the academic and critical establishments. With graphic images of warfare and terrorism reaching us every night on the national news, followed by the local bulletin with its familiar repertoire of rape and unmotivated murder, a genre which addresses itself specifically to the randomness of evil—with a solid emphasis on bodily (especially female) mutilation—suddenly looks less like a disreputable literary underclass and more like a perfectly rational way of interpreting the world.

The most passionate defenders of horror fiction have always insisted that its subject matter, at heart, is everyday life. The horror writer Peter Straub has praised Stephen King because, beneath all its bizarreness and grotesquerie, his fiction deals with ‘the real stuff of the world, with marriages and hangovers, with cigarettes and rock bands and junk food and rooming houses.’ In his introduction to the anthology Darklands, Nicholas Royle—a young novelist whose own work straddles the horror/literary divide—insists that horror stories address ‘the same themes as mainstream fiction: people, relationships, love, fear, mortality, identity, hopes, disappointments.’ He might have added ‘gender,’ for recently this genre (produced and consumed almost entirely by men, I suspect) has begun to reflect our growing awareness that the themes of violence and masculinity can't be separated. And Stephen King, with his uncanny knack for feeling out what he calls ‘national phobic pressure points,’ has evolved into the most gender-conscious horror writer of all.

No writer with an eye on the commercial market can afford to make a virtue of subtlety and King certainly has no time for it when announcing male violence as the theme of Rose Madder. The novel begins with its heroine, Rosie Daniels, on the receiving end of a miscarriage-inducing assault from her monstrous husband, Norman. Norman (who is also a cop) is not your run-of-the-mill wife-beater, however. His preferred weapons of attack are not his fists but his teeth, and as the novel's scale of violence begins to escalate and Norman pursues his fugitive wife across America, he commits a number of revolting murders, starting with that of a young Jewish man whose dead body is found bearing more than 80 bite marks and lacking a few—unspecified—external organs. Before his reign of terror is over, a woman who gets in his way will also have had her eye poked out with a coat-hook.

It goes without saying, then, that the novel's examination of violence is deeply compromised, since this violence is also shamelessly exploited as a source of shock and titillation. This is an inherent flaw of the genre, but one which King has always seemed happy to accept: ‘The gross-out,’ as he once called it, ‘can be done with varying degrees of artistic finesse, but it's always there.’ Another staple horror ingredient—the unexplained supernatural phenomenon—is integrated even less easily into Rose Madder. When Rose and Norman reach their inevitable bloody confrontation, it takes place not in the real world but in the landscape of a painting by which she has become obsessed: statues come to life, Norman himself turns into a bull, and suddenly King is throwing around allusions to Hansel and Gretel, Theseus and the Minotaur, and any other number of other myths and folk tales.

I suppose the intention was to coat a contemporary story with timeless, mythic overtones, but the only result is that a perfectly good, realistic novel promptly falls to pieces. Why do we need supernatural portrayals of hell, after all, when writers like King are so good at showing us that earthly versions of it are liable to entrap us at any moment?

Like Rose Madder, Patricia Cornwell's new novel, From Potter's Field, concerns a psycho on the loose, and once again its vision is of a world so shrunken (by technology, mainly) that evil has become inescapable. Significantly, both books make heavy iconographic use of the bank card, not just as a symbol of consumerism but also as a tracking device, a guarantee that there is now no part of the globe so remote that our movements can't be monitored. Cornwell's psycho is called Temple Gault, and just in case we were in any doubt as to his nastiness, a cop lets us know that he is ‘probably the worst killer in this friggin' century.’ (The fact that nobody ever says friggin’ in ordinary conversation gives the novel a strange texture of unreality, like the ‘TV version’ of a Scorsese film.)

The book has touches of chilling originality—the pathologist heroine, Kay Scarpetta, realises at one point that Gault is carrying out the killings for her benefit, like a cat presenting her with dead mice—but on the whole Temple Gault is too pale and obvious an echo of Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter. King's psycho-cop is reminiscent of Lecter, too, with his penchant for biting people's lips off, but all these affinities can do is remind us that Harris's supremacy in the genre remains unchallenged. Neither King nor Cornwell can really match what is most memorable about his books: their empathy with the victims of violence, their sense of the bleak poetry of blameless lives suddenly and horrifically truncated.

The high profile recently accorded to Andrew O'Hagan's non-fiction book The Missing shows what a resonant theme this is, how closely it chimes with the worst of our current anxieties. Crime and horror fiction become ever more important because nothing is more consoling than to see such a theme treated successfully in fiction: it generates a weird sense of simultaneous pleasure and revulsion, for which Umberto Eco once came up with a useful name—‘the metaphysical shudder.’ But neither of these books is quite good enough to provoke it.

Mary Scott (review date 13 October 1995)

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SOURCE: Scott, Mary. “The Knives are Out.” New Statesman & Society 8, no. 374 (13 October 1995): 32–33.

[In the following review, Scott offers a mixed assessment of From Potter's Field, comparing the novel to Minette Walters's The Dark Room.]

Gault is a pathological killer who arranges his dead victims in surreal poses. Dr Kay Scarpetta is a pathologist. Their cat and mouse game is brought to its conclusion in Patricia Cornwell's latest novel [From Potter's Field].

Why does Gault kill? Psychiatrist Anna tells Dr Kay “you are his mother and he brings you what he kills.” Why does Dr Kay, a qualified lawyer and doctor, persist in her quite horrid chosen field? “I don't know,” she confesses. Dr Kay is an enigma. Her life outside the morgue is near to non-existent. A dying mother she doesn't visit; a lesbian niece more interested in computers than her aunt; a married man with whom she conducts an on-off affair in seedy hotels—these await Dr Kay off-duty. She doesn't have a life.

Except in the detection of crime. Cornwell is superb in evoking the cold, bare, tawdry facts of murder and their aftermath on the mortuary tray. Dr Kay cuts through dead ribs and removes breastplates in the same flat monotone with which she contemplates Gault's disfigured victims. She also finds clues. A man is proved to have been struck by lightning via a burnt hole in one foot. A woman's teeth indicate she was a saxophonist prone to overbrushing. But the evidence is incised, out-of-hours, from corpses in morgues infiltrated by Gault. He steals Scarpetta's dissecting knives. He kills the cops detailed to protect her. Who is the cat and who is the mouse?

We haven't a clue until the beeper on a dead policeman's belt precipitates a nail-biting pursuit through New York's subways. The novel is rich in such sequences. But it remains short on what has led to them—short on motivation.

Motivation is at the heart of The Dark Room [by Minette Walters]. Like all the best detective fiction it challenges readers to work out how a particular character would act faced with specific circumstances. In this case there's a sharp, subtle twist; the narrator must figure out what she might have done.

Jane Kingsley suffers from amnesia after a car accident. Was she, as the police believe, trying to commit suicide after fiance Leo jilted her? Is she a murderer? With the help of Dr Alan Protheroe in whose clinic she is recuperating, Jane must deduce what she has done.

It's a richly original premise and one that Minette Walters exploits to full dramatic effect. Are Jane's “memories” those of real events or are they of episodes that she in the past imagined would happen? Jane, unlike Dr Kay, is a character with a back-story. Her father, a one-time London gangland baron suspected of commissioning a contract killing of Jane's first husband, might be behind the brutal deaths of Leo and Meg, Jane's best friend. So might Dad's ever-so-common second wife and her wastrel sons.

The quest for truth is punctuated by touches of humanity that lift this novel way above others of its genre. A kindly policeman tickling the stomach of a Jack Russell; a stressed Dr Protheroe returning from a night off to a vicious attack; and Jane, at the centre of the maelstrom, struggling to hold on to the ties of affection with her real friends. Character and motivation hold the clue to the denouement. It's a rich contrast to the cold cutting edge of the dissecting knives with which Dr Kay probes the anatomy of crime.

Mary Cantwell (essay date 14 July 1996)

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SOURCE: Cantwell, Mary. “How to Make a Corpse Talk.” New York Times Magazine (14 July 1996): 15–17.

[In the following essay, Cantwell explores Cornwell's success with the Kay Scarpetta series and Cornwell's introduction of a new heroine, Judy Hammer, in Hornet's Nest.]

Judging by her jacket photograph, Patricia Cornwell is the spitting image of her lead character, the one who has just got her a $24 million advance on three crime novels and made her a bundle on the previous seven, the most recent of which, Cause of Death, was published this month. But Patricia Cornwell doesn't really resemble Dr. Kay Scarpetta, chief medical examiner of Virginia. Her hair, possibly lightened for the pictures, isn't blond and her eyes appear a less-vivid blue. Still, she has walked Kay Scarpetta's walk, talked Kay Scarpetta's talk, and if she has not been the target of a serial killer, as Kay Scarpetta was in her first novel, Postmortem, she has been stalked and is as fully aware as her fictional protagonist of the terrible power of evil.

She is among the most famous people in Richmond, where she lives in a gated community, and her book signings, often attended by thousands, are monitored by four to six police officers doing bodyguard duty and trying to weed out weirdos. Prison inmates write her fan letters, the violence-prone saying, “I know this looks bad but I didn't do it,” and the white collar criminal—the embezzler, for instance—asking for a job with her when he's sprung.

But even though a John Updike or a Robert Coover probably hears from nuts, it is safe to assume he does not have Patricia Cornwell's particular problems with a sometimes overzealous public. Nor does he have a splendid suite of offices and an eight-person staff seemingly put on this earth to insure he has nothing to do but write for an average of 14 hours a day. Too, his output is unaccompanied by the kind of memorabilia more commonly associated with blockbuster movies and basketball teams. A closet in Cornwell's office stocks Patricia Cornwell T-shirts, visored caps with the Scarpetta logo (which is centered by a caduceus) and poster-size maps of Richmond with the landmarks in Scarpetta's life blazoned in blood-red ink. And soon, Cornwell may indeed have that blockbuster movie: From Potter's Field, her sixth Kay Scarpetta, is to be filmed.

It is when she drives through a city that she has made hers as surely as Simenon captured Paris, however, that one is most aware of Cornwell's apartness from her fellow writers. “Unit one to unit two,” she mutters in a sharp Southern accent over a two-way radio to another part of her retinue, and suddenly her transport seems less a four-by-four than a police cruiser.

A $24 million advance (and a one-million first printing for Cause of Death) for Patricia Cornwell is not the crapshoot that it might seem. The reason is not simply that her novels have sold well into the millions and been translated into 22 languages and that the orders for Cause of Death were cause for Champagne well before publication. It's that mystery readers are, on the whole, addicts. The genre generates money, especially now that so many mysteries have taken on the trappings—which may include prolixity and ponderousness—of high-ambition novels. (“They've all become endless geschichtes,” a friend moans.) True, the fare may be essentially light, but it leaves the reader with the illusion of having had a really heavy experience. As the genre writers, Ruth Rendell being perhaps the finest of them, have improved the craft, more literary names—Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, Mario Vargas Llosa—have embraced the form. Some readers regret the trend. Others, like Otto Penzler, the founder of Mysterious Press and New York's Mysterious Bookshop, welcome it.

“Getting a good solid mystery writer on your list is better than getting a good solid writer,” he says. “You know you're going to get a book a year. You more or less know its length, you know your audience and you know how many to print. You're going to get an 80 to 85 percent sell-through on stuff from the big writers. If you don't overprint and have a strong library list, you'll get a good one even from the lesser-known writers.”

Cornwell is among those at the top of the list of good solid mystery writers. Her prose is crisp and clean, and although her books tend to be lengthy, little, if anything, is extraneous. “Kay Scarpetta is a great character,” Penzler says. “You get to know her fast. She's tough but she's got her fears and her vulnerabilities. She gets on with what's needed. Patsy plots a real book.”

“Patsy,” however, insists that “the mystery genre doesn't apply to what I do, and if you expect that, you're going to be shocked or disappointed. My books are crime novels and about the people who work crime—and not mysteries, which I've never read in my life anyway.”

Cornwell doesn't “do clues,” as she puts it. Nor does she “do red herrings.” Instead, she tells the reader what it is like to be elbow-deep in blood and looking for bullets, and how hard it is to remove a shirt from death-stiffened arms. Or what it is to be scuba-diving in a murky river, as was a character in Cause of Death, and feel your loosened tank begin to slide down your back. She can tell all this because she has done all this often in the company of an off-duty policeman named Michael McKee, researching it in the interests of an accuracy that is sometimes tough to take—not only for the reader but for her. When I ask if the body farm in The Body Farm where corpses are left outdoors so the F.B.I. can study the rate of decay, is real, she answers sharply, “I don't make up anything.”

If Cornwell is sensitive to the reality of violence, it is because she has seen so much of it, and if she is a Stakhanovite among novelists, it is because her work ethic is inextricably linked with survival. Like Scarpetta, she was born in Miami. Her parents separated when she was 5, and two years later her mother moved her and her two brothers to Montreat, N.C. Two years after the move, her mother tried to give the children to the Rev. Billy Graham and his wife, Ruth.

“When I was 9 my mother had her first nervous breakdown,” Cornwell says, sitting in her office. Just outside is a glassed-in “shrine” that includes not only Scarpetta memorabilia but also Cornwell's dog Chopper's first collar. She is small and neat and, as usual, is wearing pants. “It was Christmastime, which is always volatile for people who are depressed,” she continues. “We were out of money, out of fuel, out of clothes, the car was snowed in at the bottom of a hill, and my mother just couldn't take it anymore. So she walked us up to the top of the hill and tried to give us to Ruth and Billy Graham, who didn't even know us. Ruth made us spaghetti for lunch, and I thought she was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen.”

Ruth Graham, herself the child of missionaries, installed the children with missionaries just back from the Congo and opened an account for them at a local department store. She remembers Cornwell as “plucky and smart as a whip.” The kids stayed with the missionaries for three months while their mother was hospitalized. “I didn't know how to set a table, iron, any of those things,” Cornwell says. “I had to learn to do the chores, embroider, even to wear petticoats to church. Since then, me do laundry? Oh, la-la!”

After a childhood in which “I didn't always know what was going to happen,” Cornwell graduated from Davidson College and married an English professor 17 years her senior. She worked at The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, eventually as a police reporter, and in 1981 moved to Richmond so her husband could study for the ministry. For five years they lived in tiny seminary housing, and Cornwell turned a profile of Ruth Graham she had done for The Observer into a book.

Once bitten, Cornwell wanted to write more books—books, as befits a former police reporter, about crime. A doctor friend referred her to Marcella Fierro, then a Virginia deputy chief medical examiner. “When she started talking about how you make the body talk to you, I was just blown away,” Cornwell says. “Dr. Fierro couldn't see me again for a month, so I asked if there weren't something I could do on my own. ‘Become a volunteer police officer,’ she said, and, sure enough, I'm out on the streets in uniform.”

Cornwell was also foraging in the morgue's medical library, but before she could watch an autopsy, she had to audit forensic science at the police academy. One thing led to another—technical writing, computer analysis, the coveted autopsy observations—and “next thing I knew I'd been there six years,” Cornwell says. “If I want to do something, I will go to any length to get it done, and I'm sure that goes back to feeling powerless and frightened as a child. Even now I'm frantic if I'm going to be late someplace. It's like I'm going to miss the school bus and I'm going to die.”

In 1984, when Cornwell finally began to write crime novels, she bought two Agatha Christies, one Dorothy Sayers, one P. D. James and one Dick Francis to guide her. It was a disaster. She says: “I would take all this esoteric research I was doing and try to put it into a mystery mold. The main character was a walking-wounded, poetic, polished, handsome detective named Joe Constable. Is that not awful? Dr. Kay Scarpetta was a minor character.” She wrote three books over four years, all of which were rejected.

“By now I was desperate. I was working full time in a morgue, we're still dirt poor, living in a seminary and I thought I'd ruined my life. Here I'd been an award-winning journalist and biographer and look at me now. I was a failure.” So she called the editor who had rejected her last novel and asked what she was doing wrong. As Cornwell tells it, the editor told her to ditch Joe Constable for Scarpetta and to stop writing about archeology sites, buried treasure, esoteric poisonings, fights over wills and missionaries with diamonds from the Congo. “Is this what you see at work?” the editor asked her. “No, I've never seen any of this in my life,” Cornwell replied. “Then,” the editor said, “I want to see what you see.”

Around that time, Richmond experienced a rash of serial killings, “professional women about my age who were being raped and strangled and tortured,” Cornwell says. “When the second one, a neurosurgeon whom I had seen doing a brain cutting, was found, I went nuts. At the time I had separated from my husband and was living alone. I remember the women doctors and I would go home at night and check our closets and behind the shower curtains because this guy was getting into people's houses. That's when I bought my first handgun.” She pauses. “Then a thought entered my mind. In cases like this, who better to handle them than Scarpetta?”

That was the genesis of 1990's Postmortem. Seven publishers rejected it before Scribner's took it. It went on to win all five major mystery awards for that year and the paperback sold in the hundreds of thousands, as have the subsequent Scarpettas. “I get paid more than most movie stars do—that's pretty outstanding,” Cornwell says, “but I spend a lot of money, too. Renting the private jets and helicopters, the research and the staff—it goes right back into my work.”

With her new contract, she'll have even more to pour back into her empire. But Putnam didn't woo her with that $24 million; it was Cornwell, ever driven, who made the first call. “I thought there were better ways to sell books than having me kill myself on 30-city tours. If Putnam could do a good job with Tom Clancy, I figured, they could do a good job with me.”

Cornwell is admittedly demanding. “I really must have a lot of creative control over what is being done. What I write about is very serious to me, and I don't want it made cutesy.”

What Cornwell writes about is the kind of people who kill for sport, the kind who latch onto a faceless person walking through a shopping mall and follow her home. But unlike, say, Thomas Harris, she's not interested in crawling inside the mind of a serial killer. To the contrary. “In America we've become so focused and so curious about these aberrant people, we almost celebrate them,” she says. “They have women who want to marry them, for crumb's sake.” Cornwell herself has never met a Ted Bundy or a Jeffrey Dahmer because Scarpetta doesn't have to. Besides, she has a healthy respect for evil, which is not, she says, “something out there. It's in us, in our capacity, so why would I want those dormant cells awakened?”

Her killers' nemeses are Dr. Scarpetta; her computer-genius niece, Lucy; Police Officer Pete Marino, and a supporting cast made up mostly of F.B.I. agents. (So wedded is Cornwell to the F.B.I. and to law enforcement in general, she dedicated The Body Farm to her friend Senator Orrin Hatch for his help in getting some money for the F.B.I. Academy in Quantico, Va., into the 1994 Federal Crime Bill.)

Scarpetta is of Italian descent because her work is “dark and hard,” Cornwell says, “and when she comes home I want music and wine and beautiful bright colors and lush foliage for her.” She is about 40; as is Cornwell, and holding, but Lucy, a bratty 10-year-old in Postmortem, is now in her early 20's, a lesbian without her creator's willing it. “When she reappeared in The Body Farm, there was no question that that was what she was.

“Lucy is a younger version of me. Not completely—I'm not as smart as she is, for starters—but there are similarities. As for Marino, when I was riding with the police, I knew a lot of old guys who had a lot of influence in the designing of him. They're very good at what they do, but they're very narrow in their thinking.” Which is a tactful way of saying that Pete Marino remains his unrepentant, impolitic, foulmouthed self from book to book.

The next Scarpetta novel, Unnatural Exposure, is finished and will be published in a year or so. The one after that, the first of the $24 million babies, Cornwell started this summer. Meanwhile, a non-Scarpetta book, Hornet's Nest, about a female police chief and a young police reporter, is expected in February.

It's lunchtime, and Cornwell is at a booth in the down-home kind of cafe in which Scarpetta and Marino have shared many a meal. Cornwell doesn't come here very often, but then, she doesn't really go anyplace very often. “Here's a typical weekend,” she begins. “Chris Bailor and Mary Gayle Guidon”—respectively, a former Richmond police captain who sets up Cornwell's research and Cornwell's art director—“and I flew to Asheville on Friday, and I spent several hours interviewing Ruth for a revised version of her biography and chatting with Billy. Spent the night at the Grove Park Inn. Got up early Saturday, took a private jet to New York with my mother, blitzed Bergdorf's, came back the same day. Chris and Mary Gayle picked me up, we went back to Asheville, spent the night. Flew back to Richmond Sunday and ended up on Chris's porch drinking beer and watching the dogs chase each other. That's my social life.

“I don't have a significant other. What do you do? Advertise? It would be wonderful to have some exciting relationship. But how many candidates do you think there'd be for somebody like me? Most men wouldn't deal with it for more than five minutes. But the good news is that I'm very complete in myself. My characters keep me company in lots of different ways.”

Cornwell always wears three gold rings. The first is a wedding band bought in Verona, the home of Scarpetta's fictional ancestors, and symbolizes her commitment to her work. The second symbolizes her new task, which is Hornet's Nest, and the series that may follow it. The third bears the Scarpetta logo and celebrates, in a sense, their marriage. “She works me like a dog,” Cornwell says.

Cornwell's knowledge of Richmond's streets, some of which are as mean as any major city's, is encyclopedic, but the center of her novels, the center of Scarpetta's life and the wellspring of Cornwell's work is the morgue. Late in the afternoon, Cornwell enters the large, nondescript building with the confidence of a big-time alum visiting her old high school. These are her buddies here, among them Fierro, all of whom have their counterparts in her novels.

“Hey, P. C.,” somebody says as she walks in. Others look up from their desks, calling her over for a quick conversation, and to hear it is to know that Cornwell is in her element. When someone mentions the paucity of guns for the Richmond police force, she offers to buy some. “As it is, they have to get them through the court,” she says. A forensics expert dissuades her, saying: “That's not your job. That should come out of public money.” Cornwell has, however, given a computer to at least one police department.

On the ground floor, the sweet stink of disinfectant permeates the air, all the way past the unloading bay and into the corridor where so many of Richmond's dead have been wheeled for their last physical. It is a walk that begins the cataloguing of death, for Cornwell the first steps in a journey through the life of a murder. There is the requisite look at the toe tag, then on to the X-ray room and beyond to the autopsy room. There, an electrical socket dangles over each of three tables for the Stryker saw that pathologists use to cut through bone.

Next door sits the walk-in refrigerator, in which bodies zippered into pouches rest, like so many outsize grocery bags, on wire racks. Down the hall is the misleadingly cozy room in which, years ago, families waited while the loved, or unloved, one was wheeled into view. “I've had some limited exposure to the relatives of victims, and it is so much easier to deal with the suspect,” Cornwell says. “Who wants to deal with some mother who's screaming? It tears your heart apart.”

Upstairs again, Cornwell and a forensics expert show me one of the notorious Black Talon bullets, which have flanges that open up and shred the flesh. The expert, young, pretty and cool as a cuke, shoots it into a tank of water, where it opens like a deadly metal sea anemone. “Do you want it for a souvenir?” she asks. “No,” I say, muttering something about believing in evil. “That's good,” Cornwell says. “Because evil believes in you.”

David Sexton (review date 1 March 1997)

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SOURCE: Sexton, David. “Brazil, Where the Nuts Come From.” Spectator 278, no. 8797 (1 March 1997): 29–30.

[In the following review, Sexton offers a negative assessment of Hornet's Nest, criticizing Cornwell's attempts at interjecting comedy into the novel and the growing self piety in her heroines.]

It's rarely the inventors who profit most from their discoveries. Thomas Harris is the genius of the modern thriller, if you take as a definition of genius expanding the very possibilities of a form. But, like the best innovators, Harris has not deigned to repeat himself. He has published only three novels so far: Black Sunday, an apprentice piece, in 1975; Red Dragon, the first to feature Hannibal Lecter, in 1981; and, greatly superior, The Silence of the Lambs in 1988.

Despite the huge success of both the books and the films, Harris has still not published the third Hannibal Lecter novel so obviously implied by his escape from captivity. Instead, in the interim, we've had to make do with Patricia D. Cornwell—or Patricia Cornwell, as she now prefers to be known.

Cornwell's first novel to be published, Postmortem, appeared post-Harris, in 1990. Since then she's become one of the world's most successful literary production lines. There have been seven novels featuring her pathologist heroine, Kay Scarpetta, each progressively feebler but nonetheless building up her readership. Last year she signed a contract with Putnam for three books for £18 million.

Cornwell has never been any great shakes at plotting, characterisation or prose. Her unique selling point has always been corpses on trolleys. Cornwell had herself worked in the Virginia medical officer's building and witnessed autopsies and it gave this part of her fiction—skulls being sawn, samples being taken—genuine immediacy. (The device has been artlessly ripped off in turn by the British television series Silent Witness, starring Amanda Burton as a female stiff-slicer.)

This fresh horror left Cornwell with a structural problem, however. Corpses don't fight back very well. To create any suspense, Scarpetta needed to get out of the morgue and face some living criminals. Cornwell has never found a convincing solution to this poser but has just pressed on regardless. For book after book, sundry living psychopaths have infallibly become obsessed with the Chief Medical Examiner and attempted to hunt her down. Don't ask why. It just happens, OK? For several installments, the baddie was a laughable Lecter-lookalike, a fiendish serial killer called Temple Gault. Then in From Potter's Field (1995), Scarpetta finally dispatched Gault herself with her trusty scalpel:

Arterial blood squirted across my face as I pulled the knife out and his transected femoral artery haemorrhaged to the rhythm of his horrible heart.

Yep: that's what you get when you don't wait for them to cool down first.

In last year's model, Cause of Death, Scarpetta, on holiday post-Gault, was assaulted by yet another team of crazies and terrorists, provoking serious consumer resistance among the reviewers, who had also become bored by her tiresome combination of priggishness and self-pity. Although an eighth Scarpetta outing is scheduled for this autumn, perhaps Cornwell herself has become equally disenchanted? At any rate, her new book, Hornet's Nest, presents an entirely new set of characters and attempts an excruciating comedy-thriller tone.

It's set in Charlotte, North Carolina, and sketches the city as a whole. Naturally, there's a serial killer at work here, knocking off visiting businessmen at intervals throughout the story and defiling their corpses in an interesting way, but that's not the centre of attraction, just background stuff these days. Instead, the police department itself is the main focus.

It's led by women who exemplify that horrible word ‘feisty’: Chief Judy Hammer, in her early fifties, sleek, tough, ambitious, although unfortunately married to a lazy porker; Deputy Chief Virginia West, 42, has ‘deep red hair’ and ‘a serious body,’ but lives alone with her supernatural Abyssinian cat, Niles. She's a worker:

I have a real job, nothing important. Just the entire investigative division. Homicide. Burglary. Rape. Arson. Fraud … Of course, there's a serial killer on the loose, and it's my detectives on the case, getting all the heat.

Onto the scene comes an unbelievably glamorous, fit, talented, virtuous young man, Andy Brazil, who looks even

younger than 22. He was handsome and fierce, with cheekbones high, hair streaked blond, body firm and athletically splendid.

Brazil is the son of a policeman who was shot dead while on duty (like Clarice Starling's dad in The Silence of the Lambs, remember?) Having just graduated from Davidson (as did Cornwell), Brazil has begun work on the local paper, the Charlotte Observer, doing the TV blurbs (as did Cornwell), until he is moved on to crime-reporting (as was Cornwell). Meanwhile, he is also a part-time police volunteer (as was Cornwell).

As the novel opens, Brazil becomes a ‘ride-along’ reporter with the police. West herself being assigned to look after him. It's a 48 Hours or Beverly Hills Cop set-up (outsider or rookie wins grudging respect of sceptical cop) and, like such films, it's episodic. At first, Brazil makes comical mistakes (opening the trunk of a speeding police-car accidentally, chasing a runaway coffin) but he soon proves his worth. The serial killer is unmasked and a stalker who has been making Brazil's life a misery seen off too. Meanwhile, West and Brazil begin to fall for each other, despite the age difference.

Hornet's Nest is thus a police procedural soap, albeit inferior to The Bill. Cornwell is no more proficient at emulating Carl Hiaasen's zaniness than she was Harris's frights. Yet she does seem to be sincerely captivated by police routines (dedicating the book ‘To Cops’). So, to judge from the number of dim ride-along police documentaries on television these days, is half the population, so perhaps she has not miscalculated with this new line of production as much as it appears. At this level of renown and investment, are any books permitted to fail anyway?

For critical readers, however, the only reason to slog through this unfunny, ill-written, suspenseless tale is curiosity about Patricia D. Cornwell. In June last year, it was discovered that she had been cited in a Washington divorce case as the lesbian lover of a former FBI agent, Marguerite Bennett, after Bennett's husband Eugene, himself a disgraced FBI agent, took his estranged wife hostage at gunpoint in a church. A few weeks ago, Eugene Bennett was convicted of attempted murder, the Virginia jury keenly recommending a 61-year jail sentence.

Inevitably, journalists quickly discovered parallels between Cornwell's life and her fiction. It was observed that she had apparently divided herself into both Scarpetta and Scarpetta's niece—lesbian computer wizard Lucy. Interviewed in 1995 by Julia Llewellyn Smith, Cornwell had welcomed the identification with Scarpetta, up to a point:

Her spirit is mine; we are both fighters, driven professionals, who find relationships difficult. Scarpetta is divorced and childless and so am I. The only difference is that I am not having an exciting affair like she is.

Through several of the books, Scarpetta is indeed conducting an affair with a married FBI agent called Benton.

Taken at face value, the sexual politics of Hornet's Nest are baffling. Hardly any women younger than Cornwell (41) appear, except as prostitutes. Most of the men are revolting. Chief Judy Hammer's husband Seth, for example, is an unemployed greedy-guts:

At this stage in life, he was so much like a spineless, spiteful woman that his wife wondered how it was possible she should have ended up in a lesbian relationship with a man.

While threatening suicide, Seth accidentally shoots himself in one of his enormous buttocks and, stinking to high heaven, is soon carried off by necrotising fasciitis, to which his culpably poor health renders him vulnerable: a lesson to all of us who have ever deviated from health-foods.

Then one of Brazil and West's serial enemies is Bubba, a ‘big-bellied pig,’ who eventually tries to kill them when he catches them kissing in a car. ‘If there were two things Bubba could not endure in life, they were queers making out and straights making out.’ Curiously, Eugene Bennett claimed in his divorce papers to have spied on Cornwell and his wife ‘hugging and kissing in their vehicles.’ Bubba draws a gun but is overpowered and humiliated by Brazil and West.

Yet somehow Andy Brazil alone is supposed to be both a man and brilliantly attractive. Cornwell fair slavers over him and his perpetual sportiveness ‘His gym shorts and tank top were saturated as he trotted downhill to the outdoor tennis courts.’ As a powerful indicator of sexual merit, he starts off thin and gets even thinner over the course of the novel, to the point of near-anorexia (which Cornwell herself once experienced).

What's going on? Realisation dawns early. There are lots of little signs. Brazil doesn't like beer, for instance. ‘It tasted rotten and made him sleepy and silly.’ At the gun club, all his other instincts are revealed to be equally sound.

Brazil did not understand the tribe of Male he had grown up around in North Carolina. It was beyond biology, genitals, hormones or testosterone. Some of these guys had naked pin-ups on the mudflaps of their tractor trailers, and Brazil was frankly horrified.

It's clear, isn't it? When, in their wildly improbable romance, West and Brazil finally embrace, West gasps, ‘This is incest, paedophilia.’ Not quite. The truth is that Andy Brazil is an Albertine in reverse. No nuts: he's a she. It's the only solution and quite a trick for Cornwell to have pulled off in a mass-market novel. Does she know?

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 July 1997)

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SOURCE: “Ruth, A Portrait.Kirkus Reviews 65, no. 13 (1 July 1997): 999.

[In the following review, the critic offers a mixed assessment of Ruth, A Portrait.]

A syrupy but engaging biography of the famous preacher's irrepressible wife.

[Ruth, A Portrait] is bestselling novelist Cornwell's (Unnatural Exposure, p. 759, etc.) second attempt at a biography of her mentor, 77-year-old Ruth Bell Graham, wife of evangelist Billy. The first try, published in 1982, caused the very private Ruth to distance herself from Cornwell for eight years. It's hard to imagine what Ruth could find objectionable about this version: She comes across as a near saint, enduring a dangerous mission childhood in China, terrible migraine headaches as an adult (of which she “never complained”), and marriage to a mostly absent husband. Graham himself doesn't come off so well in this telling, seeming at times imperious or callous, even leaving a feverish Ruth alone for days, right after their honeymoon, when he received an invitation to preach (in his bestselling autobiography, Graham notes that, after all, she “recovered quickly”). The book is filled with the tales of Ruth's quiet and heroic efforts to help others, visiting murderers and addicts in prison, aiding Vietnamese refugees, and assisting many students through college. These stories are touching, but they reveal less about the person of Ruth than they do about the genre of hagiography. In writing this book, Cornwell had complete access to Ruth's diaries but notes that, on a couple of key issues (like her migraines), Ruth censored her own journals.

Yet whenever Cornwell allows this guise of saintly perfection to slip away, we glimpse a truly intriguing woman—one who designed their family's hand-hewed log cabin practically behind Billy's back, who learned to ride a motorcycle as an empty-nester, and who nearly killed herself in 1974 while rigging up a daredevil mudslide for her kids on their Carolina mountain.

Paul Skenazy (review date 20 July 1997)

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SOURCE: Skenazy, Paul. “Mysteries.” Washington Post Book World 27, no. 29 (20 July 1997): 10.

[In the following excerpt, Skenazy offers a negative assessment of Unnatural Exposure, faulting Cornwell for neglecting the scientific details that made her previous books so engaging.]

After a detour earlier in the year in Hornet's Nest, Patricia Cornwell returns to Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Virginia's Medical Examiner, who provides more lurid details about corpses and their meaning than most of us imagined we'd ever care to know. Unnatural Exposure begins with an unsolved case of mutilated bodies, some in Ireland and some in Virginia, that seem the work of the same killer. A similar corpse found at a Virginia dump site, however, proves to be done by a different set of hands. Convinced of that, Scarpetta tries to develop a sense of this new killer, while one detective leaks information that undermines her efforts, and while the killer starts sending Scarpetta e-mail photographs and messages warning her of her own danger. Soon the stakes get bigger, as the dump site corpse is linked to another death—an old woman living on an isolated island off the Virginia coast, who dies of an unknown pox infection. While Scarpetta works to isolate the pox and keep the disease from becoming an epidemic, she also must find the killer, who follows her via e-mail, taunting her all the way.

Cornwell is a wonderfully evocative writer who can create a scene with a few-crisp sentences, and transcribe the details of an autopsy with precision. The supporting cast of these stories, from Scarpetta's niece Lucy (a computer expert) to homicide detective Pete Marino to FBI agent (and Scarpetta's sometime lover) Wesley Benton, add their voices and arguments to create a deft local scene. Along the way, however, the story line goes lurid, moving from detection to national health threats, from bodies in a dump to blockades of an island and military air lifts of evidence. Things get so frenzied that the smaller pleasures, and some of the human spirit, leech out of the novel before we're done. The last pages recover somewhat, but there's a feeling of exploding cannons where good storytelling would do.

Peter Messent (essay date fall–winter 2000)

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SOURCE: Messent, Peter. “Patricia Cornwell's Unnatural Exposure and the Representation of Space: Changing Patterns in Crime Fiction.” Clues: A Journal of Detection 21, no. 2 (fall–winter 2000): 37–45.

[In the following essay, Messent explores the changing landscape of investigative fiction, citing Unnatural Exposure as a prime example.]

The representation of space, and particularly of city space, is of crucial importance in American hard-boiled detective fiction. In this article, I first map the normative relationship between the detective and that urban landscape which he or she inhabits, using the work of Walter Benjamin, Michel de Certeau and Steve Pile as my critical base. I then examine the Patricia Cornwell novel, Unnatural Exposure (1997), to illustrate how, in this particular contemporary crime novel, such relationships are subject to considerable alteration. The impact of sophisticated modes of detection associated with modern police practice, and in particular of computer technology, has meant a significant shift of paradigms in the way crime fiction works and the places in which it works. To this extent, I see Cornwell's text as indicative of significant changes occurring in contemporary crime fiction as a whole.

Hard-boiled detective fiction is predominantly associated with the urban environment. Walter Benjamin's statement that “the figure of the detective is prefigured in that of the flaneur” provides a useful index to this link (qtd. in Frisby 95). Modernity and metropolis are twinned terms. Problems of legibility and control have, from the first, been associated with “the size of cities, their noise and clamor, their state of perpetual transformation …, their countless nameless faces” (Stewart 681), and criminality has always flourished in their labyrinthine streets and hidden spaces. If the detective and the flaneur are, for Benjamin, similar, in the figure of the former the “passive watchfulness” (Frisby 95) of the idler, the liminal walker of the streets, he (and for Benjamin it always is a he) who is an appreciative spectator of the varieties of city life, becomes more purposeful. Sorting though “trash, trivia, and mere fragments” (93) of the urban environment, the detective transforms idling into searching, “dig[ging] into ‘the discontinuous structure of the [city] world’” (one of arbitrary connections and of temporal and spatial fragmentation) to find those clues which allow a way “behind the facade and underneath the veils of the metropolitan exterior” (97).

We can, however, construct this relationship in another manner if we relate the detective's role as intimate reader of the sign-systems of the confusing and threatening urban text to that larger social order, the interests of which he or she ultimately serves. Again, metaphors of urban space and ways of seeing provide a way of doing this. So de Certeau uses an urban geography to metaphorically site forms of state regulation and control and their avoidance. As he describes looking at the (Manhattan) city skyline from the 110th floor observation deck of the World Trade Center, de Certeau suggests that this view can indicate the panoptic domination of the managed city: a crystal-clear reading of the urban text seen from above, through the “godlike eye of the powerful” (Pile 227). Opposed to this spectacle of the ‘city immobilised,’ however, he sets the visual activity associated with pedestrianism: the city seen from street level and as part of the crowd. Such pedestrians create the text of the city as they walk it and are invisible to the panoptic eye, “involved” as they are “in the production of an unmappable space which cannot be seen from above” (Pile 225–26).1 Thus:

The ordinary practitioners of the city live “down below,” below the thresholds at which visibility begins. … [T]hey are walkers. … whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban “text” they write without being able to read. …

(de Certeau 93)

If we conflate our different critical paradigms at this point, we can identify the interests of the dominant social authorities with the panoptic view, a potentially invasive monitoring and far-seeing eye which operates to the preservation of the established (capitalist)2 status quo. But the power of this metaphorical eye is limited, unable to penetrate street-level life in the complex urban maze where ceaseless human movement and interaction takes place in “spaces of darkness and trickery” (de Certeau 18).3 In such spaces moves the private eye, a marginalised and often disaffected figure negotiating the street world and illuminating part of it with the knowledge that comes from a detached watchfulness, but using such knowledge to the ends of exactly that social order for which he or she has so much distrust.

Yet this is to slide over a number of inconsistencies. For if crime does occur in the labyrinthine streets of the city, it is also hidden away; exceptional rather than part of the everyday and daylight world.4 And in making a distinction between police procedurals and private-eye fictions which till now has gone unmade, I also inevitably suggest that the panoptic order has its representative at street level too.5 As Steve Pile comments: “de Certeau does not have in mind other kinds of walking [than that of the flaneur]: for example, as a practice of power—such as … police patrolling” (Pile 228). To allow for such inconsistencies is not, however, to destroy my argument. Rather it allows it to function at a different, and more flexible, level. For if de Certeau's tower/street opposition is an attractive and useful way of representing the different levels of vision and authority in urban space it only partially convinces. If we associate crime with dark spaces and trickery, then it can be found at street level in those spaces unsupervised by the authorities (and those who represent them), but it is also hidden away and invisible to the eye, possibly finally visible to those detectives (private agents or disguised public officials) who go “underground”; who know how to read fragmentary street signs and/or to penetrate to that further level. And if we speak of panoptic control through the tower/street metaphor—one that does have validity as it connects to the regulatory mechanisms and forms of unseen supervision within the contemporary social order—then we must not forget that the law also has its representatives in plain view at street level, here too policing our lives.

I now turn to a recent novel, Patricia Cornwell's Unnatural Exposure, to see what relevance my introductory remarks concerning crime fiction and its representation of urban space has to current fictional practice. Scarpetta is the Chief Medical Examiner for Virginia, and based in Richmond. In this text, Cornwell's allegorical vision of the battle against moral pollution and contamination moves beyond the urban boundaries of traditional American crime fiction in twinned ways. First, the battle to police crime in this novel is, in geographical terms, wide-ranging and international. Thus the forms that crime and crime-solving take here seem to render traditional notions of threatening criminal presence in a particular urban domain an outmoded paradigm. Similarly the stress on computer technology, and the representation of direct communication with the criminal through such means, sets locational diffusion alongside and against what we might call hyperreal immediacy—in Elizabeth Grosz's words:

the replacement of geographical space with the screen interface, the transformation of distance and depth into pure surface, the reduction of space to time, of the face-to-face encounter to the terminal screen.


Let me go back a few steps here, though. Bodily violations and exposure play a considerable part in Cornwell's fiction (as one would expect with a pathologist as main protagonist). And the appearance of the first dismembered body on a landfill site on the outskirts of Richmond would initially seem to promise the connection between urban anxieties and bodily openings on which the crime novel traditionally relies (James Ellroy's LA Quartet comes immediately to mind). At the scene of the crime's discovery, Scarpetta “recover[s]” (18) this body, uncovered as it “tumbled from a scoop of trash” (24) on to that “moonscape of barren acres” (19) that composes the Atlantic Waste Landfill. We are told that the “decomposing trash” (21) here comes not just from the Tidewater area but “from places like New York, New Jersey, Chicago” (29). Thus these remnants of urban consumption are symbiotically linked to the decomposed remains of the victim. The reference to the landfill site as “shredded modern America” (34) again serves to identify the wasted body6 of the crime victim, initially sealed within a garbage bag (49), with the waste products of contemporary (urban) life. But this proves something of a lure. The narrative swerves from its starting premise, the account of serial murder,7 as Scarpetta deduces that this death is a one-off “copycat” version of prior cases, and as the murder turns out to have little to do with what we might see as the more conventional threats from an urban “underworld.” Indeed it is the close professional and personal connection between the criminal and the investigator (Scarpetta) which points to concerns in this text quite different from the urban pathologies with which the genre is normally associated.

But the representation of urban space and detection is altered in other ways too in this novel. Though Scarpetta works in Richmond, we get little description of the city streets or of any kind of flaneurie. For the most part, when the narrative is set in Richmond, we move between Scarpetta's home (“in the city's wealthiest neighborhood” [238]) to the Lab Building in which she works. Outside this locational pairing, however, we get none of that trawling of urban spaces and the reading of the signs to be found there that we find, for instance, in Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins novels. Scarpetta is located for much (though not all) of the novel in a series of interior work-spaces, in a hospital isolation ward, or behind her own locked front door (155), and much of her “detective” work occurs in such locations. We see very little of the streets of Richmond and its environment and almost all we do see is through the windscreen of her black Mercedes.

This in turn alerts us, at least in Cornwell's case, to important modifications of de Certeau's tower/street metaphor in forging a connection between the crime novel and ways of seeing the city in terms of “visual regimes” and “spatial practices” (Pile 225). And this may indicate changing paradigms in the way crime fiction operates and the places in which it operates. To explore the latter issue first, it is noticeable that this novel starts in Dublin (with old serial murders which parallel cases on Scarpetta's home territory). Once Scarpetta has returned to Richmond, the novel moves in terms of location from there to Tangier Island (a small island in Chesapeake Bay), Atlanta, Memphis, Janes Island State Park in Maryland, and Utah, among other places. Travel by air becomes more significant than local car journeys as the text proceeds. For if crime is no longer contained within the boundaries of a single city or even country—a reminder of the postmodernist collapse of these and other such boundary markers—neither is its solving.

It is here that a particular sentence from the novel provides us with a useful critical prompt. Exposed herself to the variety of smallpox virus which has been loosed, part of Scarpetta's response, when questioned by Benton about her own possible fate, is that: “It's easier to worry about stalkers, serial killers, people you can blow away with a gun. But the invisible ones are who I've always feared” (241). If crime fiction has traditionally placed much emphasis on the power of the eye (and of the I),8 and thus on the figure of the individual detective/flaneur, the sophistication of modern crime-solving techniques and an increasing emphasis on signs and clues which are not visible to the naked eye, has led to a major shift of emphasis which becomes strongly apparent in Cornwell's work.

This connects up with the noticeable shift from private-eye crime fiction to the police procedural (and its related forms) in the recent period. Cornwell's books belong in this latter category, since Scarpetta has both state and national police powers at her disposal (she is Consulting Forensic Pathologist for the FBI) as she pursues her investigative work. Suggesting the irrelevance of the Private Eye in contemporary criminal investigations, Joyce Carol Oates writes that “private detectives are rarely involved in authentic crime cases, and would have no access, in contemporary times, to the findings of forensics experts.” Cornwell's novels rely on just such “scientific detection” (of which DNA tracing is the most obvious example) and the ready access to local and national surveillance services that Scarpetta's official position brings her (Oates 34–35).

To return, then, to the matter of vision, visibility and surveillance. If prior models of detective fiction have operated around these key terms, Cornwell has adjusted hers to take in both the invisibility of the forensic evidence on which her protagonist relies, and the geographical distance and spread of those scientific agencies which enable the solving of the crimes under investigation. My prior stress on the relation between visual regime and spatial practice (using the urban scene as my model) must be adapted to the different practices of detection in Cornwell's texts and the high-tech world it would represent. The notion of the tower as indicative of forms of panoptic control was always one that carried a predominantly metaphoric charge when carried over to the realm of detective fiction, and incidents in this book reinforce that connection. The ‘monstrous flat-gray machine’ (304), the military C17 plane sent to transport the murderer's camper/laboratory for forensic examination at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah,9 with its suggestion of an alien invasive force (302), is but one reminder of the authority and supervisory power wielded by the federal government. Lucy's management of CAIN (the FBI's Criminal Artificial Intelligence Network) and her monitoring of the e-mail messages being passed from Crowder to Scarpetta also indicates panoptic control, but via the computer screen and terminal, and the technologies that she can then tap into (to discover the geographical location of the message source) rather than by more direct visual means.

If Scarpetta spends little time literally on the streets, her visits to the scenes of crime do constitute an analogous spatial move to the dark spaces where criminality resides, and she does read clues here (the facial spray [175], the corncob pipe [317]) that help to solve the crime. But for the most part, the available clues are invisible ones which can only be read with the assistance of a wide variety of police, state, federal, and medical agencies (most referred to by their acronymic label) scattered over a wide geographical area. Thus, to mention just one of numerous examples, Scarpetta flies to CDC (The Center for Disease Control and Prevention) in Atlanta to get exact information on the variant of the smallpox virus she thinks she has discovered in the murder victims. If the majority of the clues on Scarpetta's crime scenes are invisible ones, legible by means of microscope or DNA testing rather than the naked eye of the detective, and if these clues are then explored in a variety of agencies scattered over a large spatial area, then the metaphor of panoptic surveillance and street-level (in)sight in a particular urban space loses much of its informing force. A more complex and multi-dimensional spatial and visual model is necessary to explain the world of contemporary detective fiction.

The importance of computer technology in this text would reinforce this argument. Crowder, her career previously affected by an accident in a smallpox laboratory in England and now passed over for promotion in her Richmond job, is also motivated in her criminal activity by her resentment of Scarpetta's success. In communicating with Scarpetta on e-mail and computer chat room—she sends photos of her first victim via the screen name “deadoc”—she establishes her identity as Scarpetta's dark double, describing herself in the subscribers' directory with Scarpetta's own personal and professional details (“‘It's like deadoc's saying he's you,’ Lucy said” [109]). The motif of contamination (one raised early in the text10) is evident here, with the professional talents which Scarpetta possesses turned against, rather than protecting, the law. This twinning of the figures (one e-mail message runs “death doctor death you are me” [280]) also raises challenging questions about Scarpetta professional (and the reader's amateur) interests in death, savaged bodies, and bodily decay.

Scarpetta uses the chat room to try and keep the criminal in contact long enough for Lucy to locate her—and this does lead to a crucial breakthrough in the case. Prior to this, though, the criminal stays “coiled in cyberspace” (210), communicating with and frustrating Scarpetta with the games she plays. Lucy actually gets Scarpetta to enter cyberspace, when she takes the e-mail photo Crowder has sent of the room in which her victim lies, and uses the virtual environment lab at Quantico (the FBI Academy) to “immerse [her aunt] … in the crime scene” (148). Thus Scarpetta finds herself “standing on the floor in the room, as if the photograph had come to life, three-dimensional and large” (150). Though she finds this both disorienting and upsetting, and though it triggers disturbing imaginative effects beyond its visual capabilities, this does help in Scarpetta's final recognition of the crime scene. What is interesting here, for me, though, is the shift away from the material world, from an urban geography and the actual scene of crime (Crowder's house in Newport News) to its virtual representation. Elizabeth Grosz's analysis (via Paul Virilio) of changing modes of body/city interaction seems entirely relevant here when she discusses the way in which:

the implosion of space into time, the transmutation of distance into speed, the instantaneousness of communication, the collapsing of the workspace into the home computer system, will clearly have major effects on the bodies of the city's inhabitants.

Thus, in Unnatural Exposure, we see a certain by-passing of the urban spaces conventionally associated with crime fiction in favour of a focus on hyperreality, “the reduction … of the face-to-face encounter to the terminal screen” (Grosz 110). This shift, and those other related changes in the relationship between criminal investigation and the sites in and from which it occurs, point to a significant change of emphasis in the way that contemporary crime fiction gains its effects.


  1. This unmappable quality involves the sense of unlocatability involved as the constant movement between different “heres” and “theres” takes place.

  2. Both the tower platform from which the initial look occurs (the World Trade Center) and the city seen/scene, demonstrate “excesses of power and money” (see Pile 225).

  3. I use both de Certeau and Pile to my own critical ends in this essay, reshaping their words to fit the directions of my own argument. I recognise that in doing so, I can be accused of distorting their arguments and particularly their psychoanalytic emphasis. I do so to retain my own single focus on the figure of the detective and his or her relation to urban space and the larger social order.

  4. Thus David Stewart argues that popular fear of crime in the nineteenth-century stemmed partly from crimes unreadability (to the majority of the public): its location in “hidden places,” concealed by “the darkness of night”; its “lurking protean presence” (682).

  5. Mark McGurl's comment that “to the degree that the detective novel is defined by its engagement with policing, it partakes of the larger discursive project of realist narrative of making individuals accountable to social norms and to the law” encourages us to see the conservative nature of the genre in a wider socio-aesthetic context. See “Making ‘Literature’ of It: Hammett and High Culture,” American Literary History, 9.4 (1997): 704.

  6. One of Scarpetta's first remarks about the corpse is that “Body fat was abnormally low” (24).

  7. The “illegibility” (meaninglessness, apparent motivelessness) of contemporary serial crime can be seen to indicate the extremes of affectlessness and narrative incoherence that mark the (postmodern) social order. Thus Barry Taylor writes:

    As … the sign of a threatening randomness, of a disappearance of meaningful intersubjective structures, of demotivated action, of the collapse of authoritative models of explanation and interpretation, of “classical” narrative, and of the disappearance of the subject, serial murder appears to be situated at the gathering point of a number of themes which are central to a variety of discourses on the postmodern.


    See “The Violence of the Event: Hannibal Lecter in the Lyotardian Sublime,” in Steven Earnshaw, ed., Postmodern Surroundings (Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Editions Rodopi, 1994).

  8. For further material on this subject, see “Introduction: From Private Eye to Police Procedural,” in Peter Messent, ed., Criminal Proceedings: The Contemporary American Crime Novel (London: Pluto, 1997) 5–7.

  9. The army's ‘test facility for chemical and biological defence’ (294).

  10. Scarpetta's memory of the James river flood, when the lower level of her work-place had flooded, ‘water poisoned pink with formalin seeping into the morgue and the parking lot in back’ (54), provides a metaphor of invasion and contamination which reverberates through the whole text.

Works Cited

Cornwell, Patricia. Unnatural Exposure. Great Britain: Little, Brown, 1997. 18, 24, 19, 21, 29, 34, 49, 238, 155, 241, 304, 302, 175, 317, 109, 280, 210, 148, 150.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. London: U of California P, 1984. 18, 93.

Frisby, David. “Walter Benjamin and Detection.” German Politics and Society 32 (Summer 1994): 93, 95, 97.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Space, Time, and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies. New York: Routledge, 1995. 110.

Pile, Steve. The Body and the City: Psychoanalysis, Space and Subjectivity. London: Routledge, 1996. 225, 226, 228.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Simple Art of Murder.” New York Review of Books 45.20 (21 Dec. 1995): 34–35.

Stewart, David M. “Cultural Work, City Crime, Reading Pleasure.” American Literary History 9.4 (1997): 681.