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Cornwell continues to seek balance between characters, science

| Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015, 7:33 p.m.

Author Patricia Cornwell has come a long way since her days as a crime reporter for the Charlotte Observer and a computer analyst at the chief medical examiner's office in Richmond, Va.

She's published more than 30 books; 22 of them focus on her forensic scientist/crime-solving protagonist, Dr. Kay Scarpetta.

The latest, “Flesh and Blood,” was published earlier this month. Cornwell discussed it, and her work and inspirations, in a telephone interview.

Question: How do you approach each new book?

Answer: I begin each of these stories to create an experience for people, an adventure. It goes beyond just the written words on the page. Part of my mission is to go out and do things that give me such a tactile experience, a physical one, so that if I'm describing a scene — whether it's Scarpetta out on a mile-long firing range in the miserable heat of New Jersey in the summer, whether it's scuba diving a shipwreck almost a hundred feet on the bottom of the ocean in the Bermuda Triangle — whatever it is, I want the reader to feel they are doing this, to make it that vivid for them.

Q: How do you stay ahead of your readers?

A: I go out and do research, look for new and different ways to pose crime problems that Scarpetta is going to turn over. What can I do at the crime scene, what can I do to fool her? For (“Flesh and Blood”), I found a new technology in firearms that a lot of people don't know about yet. I did a lot of scuba diving around shipwrecks, because I have a big finale that has to do with that.

Q: You've switched styles over the years, from first person to third person and back to first, and between present tense and past tense. Is that about making the reader feel like she's really there?

A: Yes, it is. I went with first person in the early days. Then, for a while, I experimented with the third person point of view, because I really feel that when you switch perspectives, it's a little more like a movie. But I found that my fans were not happy with that. They really like to be in Scarpetta's head.

I like to use present tense, because, again, I want it to be the same kind of experience as when you turn on a beloved television series. You lose yourself instantly in the drama; you feel that it's happening as you're watching it.

Q: Has the character developed over the years?

A: Scarpetta's changed a lot over the years. She debuted in 1990, and, obviously, we don't live on that same planet anymore. I don't even know what planet that was.

The things that threaten our stability, our security, our happiness, are very different than they were in the 1990s. We didn't have 9/11. We weren't constantly preoccupied with our government spying on us, and a war that never ends. It seems like a very idyllic life, compared to what we have today. So, obviously, Scarpetta is not going to be the same person. She's affected by these changes the same way you and I are. ...

We know that she is an expert in the science of death, but I also want to know her feelings about the art of life. What does she think about when she gets up in the morning? What does she think about people who are really dead, of the afterlife? There are so many things that we all think about constantly. And so, I give her a chance to be reflective in a way that I didn't so much in the early ones. She's definitely more malleable, a little more mellow, and, most of all, she's more flexible than she was in the early days of the series.

Q: A few years ago I interviewed P.D. James. She mentioned how difficult it is, as science and technology continue to improve, to write a good traditional detective novel. Is that a problem for you, given your genre?

A: No, because I'm such a student of it. That's always been my stock in trade, forensic science and medicine. It's always been what I'm known for.

However, I completely understand, because, these days, you have to say something about certain tests that would be done, or what the labs would say. If you don't, your readers will. They'll go, “But if they'd used the scanning electron microscope, they would have known that it was iron, not aluminum, that was left in the bottom of that glass!' People now are armchair experts with it. I think that does put demands on writers.

For me, it's more about balancing the science with the characters and the world they occupy. I try to keep them extremely approachable and interesting. The science itself is not as interesting as it used to be, because we're flooded with it, on television in particular. People watch this all the time now, including autopsies. When I talk about an autopsy table, I assume they know what it looks like.

Sarah Bryan Miller is a staff writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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