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NEW YORK — Patricia Cornwell never runs out of ideas for her intrepid forensic investigator, Kay Scarpetta.
“Cybercrime is now a really big deal, and so Scarpetta is inevitably going to get involved in crimes that have to do with the Internet, or the high technology with communications,” the best-selling author said during a recent interview in Manhattan.
“I also have to look at the types of weapons that are available now, because those might be used in one of her cases, whether an extremely high-tech firearm or it could be a very bizarre knife of some kind an assassin might use, or poison.”
Cornwell talked about invented crime, true crime, and the facts and fiction behind her 21st Scarpetta novel, Dust, published last month. The novel is a characteristically tangled mystery that begins with the discovery of a young woman’s body at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. On her body is a mysterious residue, dust that becomes colorfully visible under ultraviolet light and leads Scarpetta on a frightening hunt for the truth.
The plot of Dust is imaginary, but the book includes some references to crimes in the headlines.
The 2012 school shootings in Newtown, Conn., happened while Cornwell was working on Dust, and when the author realized they took place near Scarpetta’s fictional office, she made sure that Scarpetta volunteered to help on the crime scene. Dust also refers to the Wall Street scandals of recent years. The murder victim in Dust had a pending lawsuit against her former financial managers, the kind of legal battle Cornwell learned firsthand after suing a financial firm and earlier this year being awarded nearly $51 million by a federal jury.
“Regardless of my personal situation about having your trust violated in a financial situation, I think there’s been a lot of people in our society who have been appalled by the abuses in the financial industry,” Cornwell says. “Some bad guys get met with poetic justice, you might say, in the end. And I think she [Scarpetta] found it quite gratifying. And maybe I did, too.”
Cornwell describes Scarpetta as one of those obsessively curious souls who never relents on a case. Scarpetta shares Cornwell’s “very analytical mind,” the author explains. She likes to investigate the most well-traveled territory as if never seen before “because you might be startled by something that’s in plain view that people have missed for 125 years.”
Cornwell wrote a controversial book in 2002 that purported to solve the mystery of Jack the Ripper’s identity, and she follows modern stories closely, from the trial of Casey Anthony to the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey.
She believes the Amanda Knox case in Italy is an example of a poorly investigated crime, rejecting speculation that British exchange student Meredith Kercher was killed as part of a wild sexual ritual. (Knox and then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were jailed, then freed, and are currently being tried again.)
“The case is not the elaborate scenario it’s been spun to be. Instead, it’s more a sexual predator who went after this woman and tried to rape her, or did. And it’s a very violent assault,” Cornwell says.
“They’ve made a great big deal about the victim’s stomach contents and how they placed the death at a certain time because her food had not really digested all that much. It’s like, ‘Hello, when you go into flight or fight mode, your digestion either shuts down completely or at least it slows, because all the blood is going to your extremities so you can defend yourself or run.’ And if somebody is being assaulted, their digestion quits. I’ve seen it in the morgue where somebody who ate 8-10 hours earlier — their food is exactly as they swallowed it.”
Cornwell also keeps up on crime fiction and recently reread Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. She admires him as an innovator on the narrative use of forensic science and finds that the carnivorous Hannibal Lecter is less frightening to her than the recent perpetrators of mass shootings in Newton; Aurora, Colo.; and elsewhere.
“This is going to sound crazy,” she says. “But when you’ve got a serial killer of a psychopath like a Hannibal Lecter-type of monster, they usually at least have some feelings about their victims, even if it’s an object they have a compulsion about, or whether it might even be a hatred, as opposed to total desensitization, where these people are almost like something in a video game, when you care nothing about anybody.”