You’d think Patricia Cornwell would be immune to all things gruesome and grisly. The bestselling author is responsible for some extremely stomach-churning scenes in her crime novels about chief medical examiner Dr Kay Scarpetta. And not only does she write about horrific crimes, she has seen the dreadful aftermath of real-life cases up close.
Patricia witnessed hundreds of post-mortems when she worked in a medical examiners’ office, and has attended many more since she started writing books. And while she says she has an “unusual capacity” for the horrific sights, she admits there are times when she does find it a bit much.
“In some ways, I am thick-skinned,” says the US author. “I think my curiosity is much stronger than my repulsion towards blood and gore. But that doesn’t mean I particularly enjoy it. I don’t think anybody could really say they enjoy being around decomposing bodies. I just have to be very stoical. But I have given myself nightmares over the years.”
Patricia, who’s just published her 20th Scarpetta novel, The Bone Bed, says one case she will never forget involved a young professional woman whose body was bound in many pairs of pantyhose after she was murdered in her home.
“It was 1985 but I remember that like it was yesterday. I can still see her face and remember her name today,” says Patricia.
The killer was caught – police originally thought it must have been someone the victim knew because there was no sign of forced entry, but it turned out to be a maintenance man who had a key.“ That one really got to me. She was about the same age as me and was in her own home, minding her business and not doing anything to put herself at risk. That case has haunted me ever since.”
Patricia (56) still attends postmortems several times a year and keeps up to date with any changes to forensic procedures to make sure her books are accurate.
She says she’s in no danger of running out of ideas. In fact, the idea for The Bone Bed came from an interest in marine biology and an invitation to go on a “dinosaur dig” with Blues Brothers actor Dan Aykroyd and his wife. The resulting book links a missing palaeontologist to a body found in a harbour.
Patricia has no plans to retire Dr Scarpetta, about whom she’s been writing for 22 years.
“I still have a tremendous amount of energy for her and will keep going for the foreseeable future.”