It's a crime! (Or a mystery…)

Patricia Cornwell speaks about Predator and answers her critics in London, UK (November 7, 2005)

Foyles book shop organised this event to celebrate the publication of Cornwell’s new Scarpetta novel, Predator, a novel described in the opening introductory speech as having the usual characters plus a twist. This time Cornwell heads in another direction, the exploration of the "why" as opposed to the "how".

Cornwell opened by thanking Foyles for their invitation and everyone for coming, noting that it meant a lot to her as she understood that following 7 July, people may be more "shy" and prefer to remain at home. Then she hit the ground running saying she did not intend to speak for long, perhaps just ten minutes, and that she’d open the floor to questions, "even if rude, cos I can handle it".

The idea for Predator came from her experience of people’s perceptions of forensics. She does not believe that people are as obsessed with it in Europe, as they are in the US. However, she acknowledged that she started a trend on the publication of Post Mortem in 1990, saying the she was "in the right place at the right time, if you can say that about morgues".

In Predator, there is plenty about forensics, but a prominent woman in publishing asked Cornwell last year what she thought would be the next trend. Cornwell gave it some thought and decided that it was the brain. She described the brain as the final frontier, something we will never know all about. For her, and she is sure many see it the same way, the brain is something of a paradox. Most organs in the body look like something that resembles their function, but she described the brain as looking like a truffle or a mushroom, adding that some do indeed use their brain as if it is a mushroom. Where the brain remains a tremendous mystery, the application of neuroscience and neurology as applying to offenders has clearly captured her imagination. Are the brains of horrendous killers different to the brains of normal people? She noted that it has already been discovered that the brains of offenders have far less activity in the frontal lobe, the area she described as the nerve centre, the CEO of the brain. The publisher’s question led Cornwell to Harvard, and the associated McLean Hospital, which she credits at the start of her book, where they are looking at functional MRIs.

Thus, there is lot of the brain and neuroscience in Predator. Cornwell herself is convinced that the brains of people such as Bundy and Jack the Ripper are/were different. Can someone be born evil? She thinks not, and acknowledged the mass and accumulation of circumstances that can eventually tip someone over the edge including mental health problems; living conditions; one or more acute life events.

So, with Predator she brings the usual mix of forensic science and medicine, but with a new focus. Now, it’s the brain and its functioning.

On that note, Cornwell invited the audience to ask her absolutely anything. And they did. (Within reason.) The esteemed author was very ready to answer her critics.

Q1 This concerned the writing style of Blow Fly. The reader noted some anguish and underlying anger in the writing and wondered if Cornwell set out to do just that. (The first brave question of the night.)

Cornwell joked that it was probably some relationship she was having at the time but then went on to thank the questioner for the opportunity to talk about it. When she had finished "The Last Precinct" she had written all the books from the first person point of view which meant that the reader can experience nothing without Scarpetta being present. For her, the truth was this, Scarpetta was tired of all of it and she couldn’t write another one like it. She felt that she and her protagonist were damaging each other, with she, the writer, bouncing Scarpetta’s brain against her skull. Therefore, after Jack the Ripper, Cornwell thought she’d take a risk and go into the third person. And this lady’s not for turning either, let me tell you, Cornwell asserts that she will not go back, after all, she finds it fun to spend time with the other characters. Indeed, she highlighted that in "Predator," Marino has had something of a makeover.

Writing in the third person can be more disturbing, with author and readers sometimes with the predator and the victims, however, Cornwell says there is a line she won’t cross as crime should be condemned and never made sexy.

(Note: in his introduction, the reader had said he was new to Cornwell’s books, having read through the Harry Bosch series and then found hers next to Michael Connelly’s on the book shelves. Cornwell joked that the alphabetical placement on shelves is very important and that she’d wished that she’d called Potter’s Field, Harry Potter’s Field.)

Q2 Had she any doubts about killing off Temple Gault who was the scariest character?

A train killed him, not me, she said. If all the bad guys came back, Cornwell thinks they may have a convention or a club we wouldn’t want them to have. With Gault, she noted that he was not seen dying and did not recall any proof that he died. Again, the lady’s not for turning and no one is coming back, although she did concede to one scary trick. (Oh yeah…) Things in real life are not tidy and there are always loose ends.

Q3 Lionel Shriver’s book "We Need To Talk About Kevin", had she read it and what was her reaction?

She did not know the book but thought she might look into it after hearing what the questioner had to say about it. In general, when it comes to the notion of being born evil, Cornwell doesn’t think this is the case. She talked of the head psychiatrist at the hospital where she did her research whose view is that offenders are "the perfect storm", where mental disorders, problem upbringing and who knows what else combine to push someone out of control. She compared it to cancer, where the patient has cancer and is not cancer. Likewise, the offender has evil and is not evil.

Q4 Why is Scarpetta so motivated to track these killers down? Is it related to her alcohol dependency?

This was the first Cornwell had heard of such a dependency. (She wasn’t the only one in the room, either.) She joked back, "Well, she likes a Scotch".

On a more serious note, for her, if offending is the perfect storm, then there must be an antithesis. Those born with, for example, a psychiatric disorder, may create one type or another. Events, proclivities, genetics, intelligence, trauma (her father’s death in Scarpetta’s case), all add up. If this was understood better then it might be possible to make it go away. Someone that unusual has to have explanations, she told us.

Q5 If starting the series which is the best one to read first and which one did Cornwell enjoy writing the most?

Predator is her current favourite, if one is not too easily frightened. The question is how he/she will be caught. Cornwell said it’s difficult to write a book where you don’t know who’s doing it but you do know it’s one of the crowd. You really do wonder who it is.

With Predator, Cornwell needed to grow as a writer, so she set the bar a lot higher.

Q6 Did Cornwell think there is an increase in serial killings and killers or is this perception due to global media coverage?

She said it was hard to answer as who knows how long back that goes, probably the to beginning of time. It wasn’t tracked or recorded, but it is now, and computers help in looking at patterns that connect crimes.

Q7 None of the books is in movie yet, had Cornwell been approached and resisted?

Cornwell noted that this has been going on for about 15 years, but that there had been no good script yet. Cornwell doesn’t actually want one; all readers have their own notions of the characters, as does she, plus she has a standard to uphold. Thus she is avoiding insult to her own integrity and that of her characters. She also noted that Hollywood thinks in terms of sequels, which she believes is a bad approach. For her, it would be far better to make just one good movie.

Q8 The question was lost here. The woman was not speaking for long before Cornwell recognised that the woman was from Massachusetts as "You can’t say your ‘Rs’.". A short and chatty discussion then followed, in which Cornwell said that she now lives in New England; loves working with people so much brighter than her; Cape is a good area; and we’ll see more of Cape in the future – there’s a novella due out next spring which is set there." (The novella has been serialised in the New York Times.)

Q9 This came from Andrew Clark of http://www.crimesquad.com who was intrigued at Cornwell’s obsession with Jack the Ripper and asked if she had a personal favourite in her personal memorabilia collection?

Well, I did mention she took the opportunity to answer her critics… This was the second brave question of the night!

To start with, Cornwell refuted the suggestion that J the R is an obsession of hers. She has better taste than that, she said. Her interest was about evidence. The obsession element was media produced. She did an investigation and published a book and more evidence surfaced, therefore she revised the book. As this was a serious investigation and a real case, any new evidence obliges her to follow up. For her, J the R is a whopping great science project and more documents are being examined right now.

She sees this not as an obsession, but a public service. Future plans include taking thousands of images and putting them in a database, performing further analysis and then placing them on a website. All, who wish to know, will then be able to see exactly what she has seen. This however, has some elements of exclusion as certain Sickert documents remain under copyright and the Sickert Trust is, understandably, not very open.

But, the honest truth? The entire project is an expensive burden to her. She is tired of Sickert and does not have his art in her house. Neither does she own J the R memorabilia.

It was very easy to gain the impression here, that Cornwell was indeed grateful for the opportunity to set the record straight.

Q10 Cornwell was asked her opinions on gun ownership in the US as well as the influence of religion on her protagonist Kay Scarpetta.

Scarpetta is a Catholic, but a non-practising one. In Cornwell’s eyes the ultimate goal of any faith is not to abuse and overpower people; doing something to hurt another person is "not the apple in Eden" but an abuse of power. Scarpetta is spiritual, but with no formal religion, and is respectful of all faiths. As an author, Cornwell wishes to avoid cutting off readers and aims to be inclusive.

As for guns, Cornwell finds it hard to imagine they will ever go away. She believes the people of the US lack editing skills and cannot match their perceived need against what they actually purchase and own. At this stage she cannot see it changing and joked that she’d always thought of the ATF, (Bureau Of Alcohol, Tobacco And Firearms), as part of the Constitution.

Q11 Does Cornwell read Patricia MacDonald and Mary Higgins Clarke? Plans for further books?

No, she doesn’t read MHC, but she noted that she is popular, nice, and that she’d met her. Cornwell, like many other crime fiction authors, does not read much crime fiction at all, and for the same reasons. She’s afraid that something will stick in her mind and resurface in her own work.

As for Andy Brazil (Hornet’s Nest, Southern Cross, Isle of Dogs), we probably won’t see him again. For Cornwell these were an escape into her own version of "Far Side" humour. The world expects Scarpetta from her and that’s what she will deliver now. She once did a children’s book and announced that she still has 30,000 copies of it, still sitting in a warehouse.

As for the UK’s national treasure, as she called him, J the R, Cornwell was quick to acknowledge that it had been a painful and depressing book to rewrite. This is something she no longer wishes to pursue. (Albeit the further evidence issues she mentioned earlier.)

Q12 Do Cornwell’s stories begin with research or story followed by research?

They usually start with a crime, an occurrence that she has a strong reaction to. Cornwell quoted an example: a case in the deep South, a couple of years ago, where a whole family disappeared, parents and children. It later transpired that all were dead, killed by a disgruntled and crazy relative.

For her, fiction and her protagonist, Scarpetta, there might be something peculiar at the scene, something simple like a pan simmering on the stove or a car unusually parked. Scarpetta will see something scary, something weird, and something inexplicable that will put her people onto it.

Predator, the novel, is also an acronym for PREDATOR the research project based at the psychiatric hospital where she does her research. The McLean Hospital, credited at the start of her novel. Her characters set out doing what they want to do, but Marino does not always do what Scarpetta tells him to do. Cornwell finds this fun, but also hard.

Q13 This centred around the difference in the reporting of crime and the perceived glorification of crime in the US as opposed to the UK.

Cornwell believes that the media, especially the creative media, which fictionalises, does indeed glorify crime. She also sees this as de-humanising. She asserted, without mentioning any particular names of TV programmes, but all would become clear, which it did, that sometimes the victims become mere props around which others do the science bit. If Cornwell has a high horse soap box, this was it. TV has presented forensics in such a way that average everyday members of the public think they have an insight. But what they see on TV is fiction, presented in a certain way.

Cornwell lamented the fact that there are now cases where killers walk free in the US because jurors had decided that not all 10 forensic procedures had been performed, in all cases. Cornwell questioned whether people understood the reality of this anymore, where they see and believe everything on TV. This is the reason why she has introduced a forensic challenge on her website. She aims to counter misinformation which changes lives and aims to educate people.

Cornwell cited one case in Florida where a man walked into a house and killed his ex-girlfriend. There was blood on the bed but no luminol procedure was performed. Luminol is used to identify traces of blood where none are apparent to the naked eye. In this case, the blood was present on the bed and to the naked eye, thus rendering the luminol test redundant. However, in the court case, the accused was convicted of trespassing as the jury questioned the absence of the luminol test. Cornwell sees this as a direct result of what people watch on TV.

Q14 Why bring Benton Wesley, Scarpetta’s former lover, back?

Well, she, the author, Patricia Cornwell didn’t. In Point of Origin, there is a fire scene, and Cornwell, like Scarpetta, believed that Benton had died. Then Cornwell received a deluge of letters from readers asking if she was sure that Benton was really dead. So, she asked herself, could someone like Benton fake his own death so that even Scarpetta could be fooled, and if so, why?

For the author, Benton decided he wasn’t dead, hence Blow Fly. And now she’s worried about others, she thought had died…

Q15 This was about the cookery book "To Die For".

Cornwell thinks that Scarpetta has a life so oblique. So, when she gets home she needs something lush and civilised like roses in the garden and being a good cook! Cornwell enjoys cooking and adding seasoning to taste. This presents difficulties for published recipes, so it resulted in a team replicating her efforts and working out the correct balance of ingredients to make a good mix.

Cornwell said that "you didn’t ask me why, but I believe that when someone asks a question you can answer with anything you like".

Oh, she did. She also answered her critics and explained the background to her recipes. She then signed books, but alas, the queue was long and I had to leave for my train.

Later, on the train, I had the time to think about the evening. Cornwell has dedication and direction, as well as an obvious commitment to her beliefs and causes. She had some excellent points to make about society today, especially in the US and in relation to its changing culture. I warmed to her. She’s a great public performer and I warmed to her more than I’d expect.

Fictionally, she has reacted to reader feedback, which is so very good. But I still wonder if the majority remain silent here. When I read Predator, I will let you know. I’ll admit I was on a downward slope before I read Blow Fly, which was the bottoming out of that curve for me. Trace was an improvement, but the deed was done in Blow Fly, and now, as a reader, I have to live the consequences of someone else’s imagination. Cornwell and I sit at tangential and opposing threads, truth be told. I can handle a change in point of view and tense, but the resurrection of Benton in Blow Fly, faster than from a power shower from Texas in the 1980s, suspended any of my belief in all the characters.

It was a really good night. Cornwell sought questions and she got them. Most authors do the deed for about 60 minutes max. To her credit, she stood there and introduced herself and then answered reader questions for at least 15 minutes more! But she, as an author, and a person, with what she said, well out-weighed her books for me. She is now a prominent figure in the US and uses this to extremely good ends. On that journey home I sat there thinking this: I may not like her fiction 100%, but I do like her presence in this world and what she works for within her beliefs. Indeed, rightly or wrongly, she pursues causes and puts her full economic weight behind them, which is now very big.

Rightly or wrongly? Time will tell. But one thing here: it is good to see someone who makes a good income out of book sales, (and no materialised movie deals, come to that), and who uses some of that income to work towards creating a better world.

All research is tenuous at the start, by its very nature. It’s good when the research that is somewhat key to us, and gets a profile. Big thumbs up to Patricia Cornwell. She is doing all she can in this world to make it better within the sphere of her own ability. For that she is to be commended very highly.

As for Predator, I have yet to read it. But it’s on my to read pile and very close to my usual location of reading…

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This entry was posted on November 16, 2005 by in Uncategorized.