Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Cornwell factor

From The Age --

The Cornwell factor --

By Paola Totaro --
November 15, 2009 --

IT IS mid-afternoon at the Soho Hotel and already, the light is fading fast as the London winter starts to make itself felt. The lobby is frenetic, as always, bristling with newly arrived guests and purposeful staff. It is a favourite of visiting celebrities, writers, musicians and actors; staff treat the ubiquitous TV crews and photographers as if they are part of the uber cool furniture, the front desk concierges seemingly impervious to both fame and flashbulbs.

The bestselling American author Patricia Cornwell is upstairs in a big - no, huge - suite on an upper floor of the buzzy inn. Panoramic windows overlook an expanse of West End roofs.

The 53-year-old creator of the razor sharp forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta emerges from one of many doors, her handshake as firm and direct as that ascribed to her book's central character. Immaculately coiffed, short blonde hair framing a handsome, remarkably unlined face, she is dressed in leather biker-style boots, knife-edge pressed hipster jeans, a big buckled belt, black T-shirt encrusted with a Damien Hirst-style sequinned skull, and well-cut jacket. She wears jewellery, the most obvious a wedding ring with diamonds, a visible symbol of her marriage in 2005 to Dr Staci Gruber, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Harvard.

Cornwell's looks and sexuality - she was famously outed in 1992 after a brief affair with FBI agent Marguerite Bennett that culminated in the attempted murder of Bennett by her jealous husband - should not really be subject of discussion in an interview about The Scarpetta Factor, her new thriller. But it is hard not to go there because so much of the author's world, her experiences and observations, permeate the novel.

Lucy, Scarpetta's computer genius niece, is gay and her complex relationship with the New York Medical Examiner, Jaime Berger, is integral to the plot. Lucy has a penchant for driving Ferraris (so did Cornwell); she loves the adrenaline rush of flying a helicopter (so does Cornwell); is fragile and struggles with dark moods (Cornwell says she manages her bipolar disorder without medication); and in this book Lucy is furiously tracking a rogue financial adviser who has decimated her multimillion-dollar fortune.

Days before our interview, news broke that Cornwell, reputed to earn $US10 million ($11 million) a year, and Gruber are suing their long-time financial advisers, claiming that they have burned through $40 million of their clients' money since 2005. In the novel, however, the fraud that siphoned millions from Lucy's fortune is treated more as a personal betrayal.

Seated ramrod straight on one of the suite's enormous couches, one boot resting across her knee, Cornwell pauses before acknowledging the links between herself and her characters. "There's probably a little bit of me in all of them, for good or for bad,'' she concedes. "But none of them, not even Scarpetta, are very much like me and that's good because I can honestly just thoroughly enjoy her and not be bored.''

In an interview published in The Times last year, Cornwell suggested Scarpetta was in fact based on an idealised version of the mother she wished she'd had. Her real mother was hospitalised for mental illness after her lawyer husband walked out when Cornwell was five. Young Patricia subsequently spent time with a cruel and terrifying foster mother, an experience she has described as traumatic. ''I probably kill this lady every time I write a book,'' she told The Times' Janice Turner.

Cornwell, who published her first Scarpetta novel in 1990, started her professional life as a crime reporter on The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina and later spent a number of years as an analyst in a medical examiner's office. Now she mines her partner's expertise when she is working through a new plot.

"I was always interested in the psychology and the psychiatry of what is going on with these crimes. If you live with a Harvard scientist then it has to be a good resource. I always give her credit. We have a lot of fun conspiring these things. I like relying on people who are smarter than me," she says.

Gruber is clearly a useful creative resource for her novels. A piece of equipment integral to the plot of The Scarpetta Factor was a Gruber invention. "Staci helped me create the 'Biograph','' she says. ''I asked her to invent something for me which was within the realm of possibility.''

Cornwell credits Gruber with bringing a greater sense of stability and belonging to her life. The couple wed in Massachusetts, one of only five US states that allow gay marriage. Cornwell has since said that the marriage radicalised her politics, turning her from a trenchant Republican into a Democrat. ''I've never been a soapbox person for gay rights, but now I'm in a same-sex marriage I tend to be more open, because I am outraged that it should be illegal in other states,'' she told Britain's Telegraph in 2007.

Perhaps in another nod to Gruber, the latest Scarpetta book shows signs of being written by a more candid and content Cornwell. There is a scene in which Scarpetta, terrified by a narrow escape, casts off her cool veneer in the privacy of her marriage and home. It makes for an intimate vignette, sharply written and observed.

Cornwell launches her new story in New York, where we find Dr Kay Scarpetta in a melancholy mood and contemplating Christmas. The world is reeling in the global financial storm, and straitened economic times have meant the forensic specialist is doing some pro bono work for the city's chief medical examiner.

Scarpetta has also reluctantly taken on a regular spot on a CNN TV show to talk about forensic science and, mid-way thorough the last appearance of the year, she is asked about the controversial disappearance of a famous heiress, Hannah Starr, who is presumed dead.

Minutes later, she takes a strange live call from a former patient of her psychiatrist husband, Benton Wesley.

So starts a complex, layered plot that ranges from dark, psychological thriller to an occasionally masterful observation of human relationships.

Cornwell says forensic science is no longer the central tenet of her novels. She launched the genre in the early 1990s but now, the so-called CSI factor has reached saturation point and for her, it is the characters and their world that drive her writing.

"When I was first coming out with new books, I was the only show in town but all of a sudden they're everywhere … I want to write about how the world affects them. I was so shocked at seeing the impact of the global financial crisis on New York, the boarded-up windows, emptied streets and graffitied walls. I set the book in the lead-up to Christmas because it is an emotionally charged time of year and especially in such a time," she said.

"I wanted to see what the economic crisis would mean, how it affected the characters and so the economy itself became a character. By doing that, the characters began to dictate to me what happened to them."

Still a journalist at heart, Cornwell researches her books as if she were writing non-fiction, spending months in the places where she plans to take her characters.

"I spent a lot of time with the NYPD [New York City Police Department], with their bomb squad, the emergency units, the Real Time Crime Centre, so I could explain and write about the incredible way computers are used to transmit data to police responding to a call,'' she said.

"I spent time at the NYPD crime lab … The technology of the electronic nose, [a] mechanical sniffer that takes the place of cadaver dogs, is based on things I've seen, as is the IT stuff - cyber crime and how people do things like hide IP addresses."

The latest plot also reflects Cornwell's own questions about the rapid nature of change in the modern world, a place where we are constantly connected, on laptops at home, via BlackBerry in the street, the supermarket and even on holidays. One of the biggest crises for Scarpetta comes when she fails to set a password on her BlackBerry because she cannot be bothered to go through the security rigmarole every time she uses the phone. Cornwell says it was born of her own frustrations and experience and that the biggest war she wages in her own life is distraction.

"If I'm distracted, my characters won't talk to me and share their world with me. Call them actors or whatever you like but they won't star in my movie unless I concentrate on them and nothing else." Cornwell flies a chopper partly to get from A to B, but also because it's the one place she can't look at her BlackBerry, check emails, or play on the laptop.

The nature of fame also comes under scrutiny in the latest book, as Cornwell allows her heroine to be courted by CNN to host her own TV show, The Scarpetta Factor (hence the book's title). The protagonist, however, agonises that her high profile could create the illusion that she has a mythical ''something'' that allows her to solve every case. Her inner fear is that she will become a victim of her own stereotype.

Fame has clearly been a double-edged sword for Cornwell, who describes herself as hyper-vigilant. Perhaps as a result of her research into the often gruesome crimes in her novels, her penchant for security is notorious, reportedly extending to undercover bodyguards and a handgun she is said to carry when walking her dogs.

Cornwell has been writing about Scarpetta and her cohorts for 20 years and argues that it is the growth of her characters and the evolution of their lives that keep her books fresh. Asked if she sees an end for her heroine, she bristles. "No, I don't see an end, because people are always going to die and their cases are always going to have to be worked whether it's with the technology we know today or something new,'' she says.

"If she continues to do what she does then she is going to have to adapt to the world we live in the same way as the rest of us do, so I don't see an end to her productivity or relevance. The ultimate Scarpetta factor is the way she thinks … answers that aren't just going to come from science or instruments. It's the human element. That is what I am interested in now."

Cornwell pretty much produces a book each year, researching until Christmas and then writing over the next six months to deliver to her publishers in June. By the time the books are released globally around November she is well into the next book.

The next one is already past infancy and while Scarpetta will remain in New York, ''something'' - a mystery from her youth - will take her to Washington. "I'm going to keep it a secret for now except to say that she is going to revisit something that will reveal to the readers something that she did many years ago that nobody knows about. Something that is very important to who she is. It's an aspect of her professional past that I've never showed anybody before. I've made hints at it in some ways but it's not been there, not discussed, and it's going to be a surprise."

Will the crime or Scarpetta drive the stories of the future?

"It's a real balancing act,'' Cornwell says. ''I don't want to trivialise it too much - and that's why I don't like people calling my books mysteries. They most certainly aren't and neither are they puzzles to be solved: what they are are tragedies, deaths that should be dealt with so the [victims'] stories can be heard."

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