There are some mysteries Patricia Cornwell, crime novelist and creator of Kay Scarpetta, can't crack

We talk to Cornwell about working with Jamie Lee Curtis on the Scarpetta TV series and looking to space for answers

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 22, 2021 6:00PM (EST)

Patricia Cornwell and Jamie Lee Curtis attend Live Talks Los Angeles at Moss Theatre at New Roads School on October 30, 2015 in Santa Monica, California. (Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images)
Patricia Cornwell and Jamie Lee Curtis attend Live Talks Los Angeles at Moss Theatre at New Roads School on October 30, 2015 in Santa Monica, California. (Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images)

More than 30 years after her debut — and five years after we last saw her in the bestselling novel "Chaos" — Dr. Kay Scarpetta is back in a big way. First, there's "Autopsy," the 25th installment in the acclaimed series. Then, there's the long-awaited upcoming television adaptation, with Jamie Lee Curtis on board as producer. And the woman behind all the murder, mayhem and mystery is the Edgar and Sherlock Award-winning Patricia Cornwell. One of the true pioneers in modern crime fiction, Cornwell joined us recently for a Salon Talks conversation about solving crime in space, bringing Scarpetta to television and the one surprising mystery she can't crack. Watch the video here, or read a Q&A of our talk below.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

You have sold over 100 million books. Do you ever get tired of people saying that, Patricia?

No, but there are people who've sold even more than that. Agatha Christie is up in the billions now. How do you even fathom numbers like that? It's weird. If you would have told me that in 1990, when "Postmortem" came out and the first printing was 6,000 copies, that I would sell that many books, I think I'd have been scared. I'm glad I didn't know.

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Which brings us to where we are now. After that last Scarpetta novel, "Chaos," it seemed like the series was over. You said in 2019 you felt like you had gone as far as you could go with her. You've said that she "fired" you. What got her to rehire you?

The last couple of Scarpetta books I did, I'm always looking for the latest technologies out there and what she might confront. I was dealing with some high-energy weapon that was kind of simulating lightning strikes, all of which is a real thing. When I finished, I thought, "I don't know what else to do with her, unless to send her to outer space." I was saying that as a joke. I thought, "This has gone as far as I can go with this series, and it's time to stop it. I need to quit it before it quits me."

So I did. I quit. I never, ever planned to come back. If there had not been this pandemic, I would not have come back, because I'd gone on to other things. Then everything just came to a stop, including even in the publishing business. Everybody was being more tentative about making quick decisions about what's going to be next, and also deep thoughts about what you want to spend the rest of your time on, especially in this world that has changed so dramatically. What matters to you? What's meaningful?

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I went back to her. I thought, "If I'm going to try to speak through anybody now, I would like to work with her and see what she's got to say and what she would do in this world that we're living in." The big thing that's transitioned is that from the time I left five years ago to where we are today, we are up against enemies that are invisible in a way that we've never been before. Whether it's cyber attacks or the Havana syndrome or high-energy weapons and visible things that are shooting at people, or viruses that some people don't even believe are real and others wonder were created in a lab, certainly, anything can be weaponized.

Now Scarpetta is up against enemies that she can't see, necessarily. That's why she's on this Washington Doomsday Commission, to help us anticipate the things that can be done and how we can prevent them, recognize them and deal with them. That would include an attack that's not on the surface of this planet, that's in outer space, where she can't even be there, but she's got to manage remotely. You're dealing with what would seem to be an invisible enemy at first. Who did this, what is it, and what happened?

Knowing about how you returned to this character, it really seems that Scarpetta is on a similar track in this book. She is returning to something she thought she had maybe left behind. I'm wondering about that relationship between you and her, and if you felt the same way returning to her as maybe she feels in this book.

Yes, it's interesting. I did not know this in the beginning of my career. No one ever told me that when you create a character, it creates you. It's like any relationship that's close. What you do affects the other, and what the other does affects you. So when I quit Scarpetta because I didn't think I had anything else to say, she kind of quit me at the same time.

When she came back to Virginia in "Autopsy," I had to go back to Virginia. This began several years ago. When I finished "Chaos," at first I thought I was going to take Scarpetta back to Virginia, and I even went and did some research there. Then I decided I had nothing else to say. I actually tried to write a couple opening chapters, and then I thought, "I've got to let this go."

Here's the weird part. I'd been away from Virginia for decades, and when I went back and went to a medical examiner's office or went to the police department, I realized, a lot of these people don't know who I am any more. I've been gone so long. The series started so long ago. It was really a great thing because I got a feeling for what it's going to be like for her, to go back where either people know who you are and they don't want you back because you get in their way for some reason. They're younger. They weren't here when she was the chief long ago.

She feels very much like she did in the days of "Postmortem," when she'd arrived in Richmond from Miami, taking over for a male chief medical examiner who was a drunk and never bothered showing up at crime scenes, and the cops had free run over everything. She showed up in town long ago and had real conflict on her hands. Now, thirty years later, she goes back to Virginia, but now she's in northern Virginia. She's chief again, and she is up against huge political obstructions, fiefdoms, networks and corruption, where the system that she had done so well with long ago has been run into the ground. There's a lot of things that have been covered up.

That's going to be fun going forward, because you've had 20 years of negligence in a medical examiner system, like I have fictionally in this particular scenario. There will always be room for other things that come creeping out of the woodwork that are not resolved or were lied about. The truth will come out eventually.

You've already got the next one in progress. Scarpetta is back. This is not a one-off.

No. She came back swinging. When "Autopsy" was over, it felt like she was going to be going off to the next thing.

Going away and learning something new, immersing myself in an entirely different universe and not going to the morgue, not going to forensic labs, but doing all the NASA and other research that I started doing, caused me to let something get its mojo back. It's like rotating your crops, let the field get fertile again. I learned new things that I can apply to the forensic world and to death scenes — not only in outer space, but if we want to work on anything remotely anywhere, in addition to in your own backyard. She's got a lot more tools in her little toolbox now.

It is so exciting to watch how excited you get talking about things you've learned in the last couple of years, taking this hiatus from Scarpetta and becoming immersed in this world of space. You went off and you started a new book series about that. Talk to me about how that spark began for you.

Ever since I was a little kid, I was interested in space stuff. I just didn't really know that I was. For example, I have a little drawing I did when I was six years old because of John Glenn in a space suit standing next to a rocket, and there's a little monkey there. In my childlike thinking, I thought the monkey and John Glenn would go together to keep each other company, which is not how that works. Why was I thinking about that way back then?

I remember my dad had a telescope. He always had telescopes. My grandmother gave us a toy when I was little called a Space Rider, which was a zipline. Back in those days, hardly anybody had anything like that. There were things in my background that harken back to this, like even seeing a helicopter at the bottom of the hill where I lived as a little kid, because Billy Graham had flown into town with Muhammad Ali or somebody. Here's a helicopter in the 1960s sitting in the grass, and I'm looking at it like, "Holy smoke, what is this?" That was like a UFO back in the day. You didn't even see those flying overhead back then.

I've always been intrigued by things, particularly machines and vehicles. Some of this I think I come by honestly. The reason I get excited is I love the stuff that's going on out there and I want to learn about it, and then organize it into a story so you can show people the things you've experienced that are marvelous. They might be really scary, but they're marvelous.

When you go in the morgue and you watch somebody look at the gastric contents in a murder victim and measure it, and then go get the meal that they ate before they died, and put that in a blender and measure it to see if it matches, because you have a theory that their digestion shut down because they were so terrorized before they ended up dying, as awful as it is, it fills you full of wonder at the human capacity to figure out the answers to questions that we must answer. We have to know why people died.

What is it about space? The answers to so much about everything down here have to do with up there. Some people might want it called heaven — the heavens, for sure. There have been theories for decades that life here started from somewhere else. Francis Crick, who won the Nobel Prize for discovering the double helix of the DNA molecule, wrote a paper in the 1970s theorizing that life on earth was planted by someplace else, some higher society. He bases this on the fact that the DNA of all living things on this planet is almost identical and had to have come from the same source. It's up to anybody to figure out what that source might be.

I'm intrigued by all this. I grew up hearing about the Garden of Eden and heaven and birth and death. I've been studying death for decades — the end of existence, supposedly. All the while I'm doing that thinking, "No way. This isn't right." We don't know enough about our reality, and we should learn more about it. We should also be open enough to perhaps embrace the idea that we're not the only thing in the universe, and we need to get along with each other. Start with that, before we're ever going to get along with anything else.

When I began doing this research about space, in addition to getting great ideas for stories, it changed the way I started thinking about everything. It gave me an understanding that there's so much that doesn't meet the eye. Why does it matter? Why do we have Space Force? What is it we're so afraid of up there? It's not somebody murdering somebody up there, like I might do in my books. It's not extraterrestrials coming after us, because if they wanted to do that, they could've probably done that a long time ago. They're probably a little bit smarter than we are.

It's because of what people here do with every new territory, whether it's John Smith going to Jamestown from England in 1607, or us going to the moon or space stations, Mars, who knows where. Where we go, we take who we are with us. Crime is already up there, and it's going to get worse if we're not careful about what we do and if we don't develop our technologies and our military. The good guys must win. In the Bible, it talks about St. Peter and the gates to heaven. We have gates that are up there now, and there will be more of them. You want to make sure it's the right St. Peter, so to speak, that's got the keys to that, or we could be in big trouble down here.

Patricia, you are one of those people who really lit the match for a popular understanding of forensics and a popular fascination with forensic science. It was not like that 30 years ago at all in the popular imagination. Now I think a lot of us, and I include myself, think of ourselves as amateur crime aficionados.

There is a deeper understanding of the terminology, and so much of forensics has come into the common parlance. I'm wondering how that has changed in your relationship with your readers now, because there's a deeper sophistication in the general population about crime solving techniques and the science of it.

I don't know how it's really changed things for the readers. I would think that those that like to read my books will always expect that there's going to be some little strange something technologically that they don't know about. It's like an archeology dig. If you've ever been on one of those, it's a most amazing thing when you find a little shard or a little piece of something, and then you find out what it means and where it came from and what it says about the people that lived and died there hundreds or thousands of years ago.

In forensics, it's something simple. It's like a a fleck of paint, and then you put it under a scanning electron microscope and you can see there's ten layers to that paint because that car or something has been painted over and over and over. Now it has a unique signature, and you might even figure out where it came from. Then you know who hit that person. All these things where something small tells a really big story if you're just willing to pay attention to it.

That's what I think the readers always expect. In "Autopsy," you have a laboratory analysis of some wine. I'm not going to say why, but there's trace evidence, invisible stuff, all over the place. Microscopically, you're looking at this and you're saying, "Okay, I'm seeing paint that goes back to the 1500's, because it's not been made in a long time. I'm seeing hairs from a bat. I'm seeing this, and I'm seeing this." It almost becomes like Dr. Seuss. It's like, "Well, what the hell does that mean? Where did this come from?" You'll find out because there's a reason that all that stuff is in there.

And you keep us guessing until pretty much the last page.

That's the whole fun of it. You have to manipulate all this so people go thinking this and thinking that, but always done in a fair way, because I don't lie about what I'm showing to you. That stuff was definitely in there, but it may not necessarily mean anything, and then again it might. In Scarpetta's case, she goes, "My house goes back to the 1700's. Oh my God, is it possible that came from my own place?" That would not be good in this situation if that were true.

It's just fun to go out and explore. What we're doing is storytelling. I encourage everybody to be a storyteller, even if it's just so you tell your kids stories. Your stories are poetry or paintings or drawings, movies. It could be a technical paper where you're explaining how a rocket works, but it's a story about how you're supposed to understand this thing.

Stories are ways of our interpreting everything around us and translating this. It's no different than going into a pyramid and seeing the hieroglyphics on a wall. It's stories that help us understand our world and make sense of it, that tell us who we are and what we're supposed to do and what to expect. That's why I think we should be exploring and exploring and exploring, because the more we can find out about who we are as humans, the better we're going to be and the happier we're going to be.

This book is not the only way that we're going to be seeing Scarpetta now. There are some other developments going on finally, after 30 years.

The best part about this is getting to work with Jamie Lee Curtis, because I personally just love her. She's wonderful. I've known her for a few years. In fact, the very first time I ever laid eyes on her, we were both on "Good Morning America" together long ago. She was promoting one of her books, and I was promoting one of my books. I sent a book to her dressing room because I had always been a big fan, and she wrote me back this lovely letter. I'd never had anybody really do that before, this beautiful letter and calligraphy. I thought, "That's a fine person."

Then I got to know her, and now she's the producer for the Scarpetta TV series. She just announced that she's not playing Scarpetta. No doubt she'll play something, but she's more the producer. I don't know who's going to play Scarpetta yet. We're in the very early stages. There's a writer involved, beginning to build and figure out how to do this.

You talk about storytelling and the ways in which we tell our stories. One of the things people love about your books is the food. That is always a supporting star in your books. I'm wondering what it's like when you're writing so much about food. How does that impact the rest of your day? Do you just say, "I've got to shut the laptop now and go make some garlic bread"?

The garlic bread that Scarpetta serves towards the end of the book, there's her secret recipe, and nobody knows what's in that garlic bread. That is based on truth because Staci, my partner, she makes garlic bread. I'm telling you, it is the best thing you've ever tasted, and she won't tell me. There's some secret ingredient in it, and she hides it. I can't find it in the cupboard. I don't know what it is. She orders it. I have no clue.

I do know that if I start eating that garlic bread, like I started doing during the pandemic, all I can tell you is that one day I looked in the mirror and I said, "You didn't get this way overnight, and you're not going to un-get this way overnight after a year of tequila and garlic bread." So I have been having to straighten myself out these last few months, getting ready for book tour.

I've just got to get this right in my mind: One of our greatest mystery writers doesn't know how the garlic bread gets made in your own home?

I don't know what she puts in it. But I'm telling you, if you ate it, you would not believe it. 

It's a lot of butter, and there's some Parmigiano Reggiano, I think. I don't know. She uses a certain kind of bread. But there's something there, I don't know what it is, and she's never going to tell me. That's it. People, maybe when they get to the end of it, they can figure it out. Or maybe next year when we have a book come out, we can have a prize that Staci will send the garlic bread to somebody.

I want the next novel to just be about Scarpetta cracking the code of a garlic bread mystery.

I think Staci and Scarpetta are in some kind of conspiracy in the kitchen.

Part of it is it's the ritual. It's kind of like "The Sopranos." My method is, you always end with everybody eating together. It's where you kind of wind up a few little loose threads, and create a few new ones to go on for later.

But it is fellowship, where I'm basically saying to the reader, "We are all together. This is a party. If I could serve you this food myself to thank you for being here, wed all have dinner together." Scarpetta makes things with her own hands and she pours it with her own hands, and she feeds you. That is part of the beauty, this woman who can cut open a body with her eyes shut, but yet there is that nurturing. She loves the life in front of her, and she takes care of it as best she can.

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By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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