Patricia Cornwell: the queen of crime thriller

Photo from Telegraph.co.uk
I was no more than eighteen years old when I happened to read my first book by Patricia Cornwell and it was in English (as you know, I’m Italian). It was “Body of Evidence” and I liked it so much that I decided to continue with “Postmortem”. Only then I realized that not only they were connected, but I had read them in the wrong order! A mistake that I no longer repeated and I invite any reader who wishes to get closer to the works of this author not to commit it, as well.

Surely the most famous series by Cornwell, which today includes twenty-five novels (including the upcoming new release, “Chaos”), is the one whose main character is a medical examiner called Kay Scarpetta. A character of Italian origin that seems to be inspired by a real person, Dr. Marcella Farinelli Fierro, with whom Cornwell worked back in the 80s. Reality and fiction mingle in her novels, in which she narrates with wealth of detail about the work of a medical examiner and brings to the fore the subject of forensic science, so much that it seems that they had a significant influence in many TV series on this topic, such as CSI.

Forensic science is definitely an essential element in this series of novels. The author draws liberally from her work experience at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia. She isn’t a doctor, but worked as a computer analyst, which has undoubtedly contributed to the creation of another character, Lucy Farinelli, Scarpetta’s niece.
In the early books Lucy is a girl with great computer skills, but then we see her grow and become a complex and problematic character. In fact, although the novels in this series are within the so-called crime fiction, what really matters, and the reason why they must be read in the right order, is not the individual criminal case narrated in each book, but the subplots following Kay Scarpetta, Lucy, Pete Marino, and all other recurring characters. In the end the villain of the moment, often a serial killer, is a tool to build dark atmospheres, show the investigation that starts from the corpse of the victim and other physical evidence, but it is just one of the elements of conflict in the books.
Not surprisingly, one thing I noticed since the first reading, is that the resolution, which often leads to the death of the villain, occurs quickly, within a couple of paragraphs, so that every time I find myself going back and re-read them, because I’ve almost missed it!

Yet I continue to read her books, because she always finds a different way of surprising me. You may be wondering how it is possible for an author to continue to narrate about the same characters for twenty-five books, managing to make their vicissitudes interesting.
Cornwell somehow succeeds it, often by means of experiencing new ways to narrate a story. Some of her books are written in first person, others in third person, some in the present tense, others in past tense. In the last one I read, “Port Mortuary” (I have almost all her books, but I like to read them some years after the publication; novels do not expire!), she manages to develop a story in first person within about twenty-four hours. Scarpetta wasn’t present during the murder, of course, and is only partly involved in the investigations, but through a series of gimmicks the author still manages to make the novel compelling and ensure that the case touches closely the main characters, becoming one thing with the subplots.
Thanks to this ability her books are crime thrillers and not mysteries or detective stories.

But Cornwell has not only written the Scarpetta series. This is only her most famous series, which she continues to develop due to its success.
She tried to write something different and, as often happens, her attempt wasn’t appreciated by many of her fans (especially those that fall under the uninteresting category of readers who love to stick to a certain type of readings).

Another series of hers including only three books (“Hornet’s Nests”, “Southern Cross”, and “Isle of Dogs”) is the one with Judy Hammer and Andy Brazil. In the third book you find out that it is set in the same reality of the Scarpetta series (Scarpetta appears in a brief cameo), but it has nothing to do with the stories of the latter.
We have always to do with crimes, but the tone is much lighter, ironic. While reading you often find yourself laughing. The author experiments by showing scenes even from the point of view of animals (in “Isle of Dogs” there is a fabulous scene from the point of view of a crab!) and she dwells upon narrating interesting stories about the locals. The first book in this series also became a TV movie with Virginia Madsen in 2012.

Then there is the Win Garano series, consisting of two short novels (“At Risk” and “The Front”), which features an African-American detective, but also with Italian origins. The tones are darker, but the story runs at high speed and has the characteristic of being narrated in third person and present tense, almost like a screenplay. And coincidentally both novels have been translated into TV movies starring Daniel Sunjata and Andie MacDowell (in both Cornwell herself appeared in the role of a waitress), although the story has some differences and the ending is different.

Instead I’ve never read any of her non-fiction works, such as the one about Jack The Ripper, because they don’t interest me very much or at all (especially the book about Scarpetta’s recipes!).
However, I can safely say that Patricia Cornwell is one of my favourite authors, and especially one of the few of whom I always buy the printed edition. I’m fascinated by her way of writing, so much that for some time now I have decided not to purchase the editions in Italian (also because the translation quality in the latest ones I had read had drastically decreased) and read her books in the original language. However, being an admirer, both as a reader and as a writer of crime thrillers (like the Detective Eric Shaw Trilogy, in which I borrowed the expedient used in “Isle of Dogs” of putting a blog inside the novel), I hope she can break free (her publisher permitting) from the clutches of Scarpetta (shouldn’t she retire sooner or later?) and show us soon her great skills with new stories and new characters.