Patricia Cornwell brings a sensitivity to her crime novels


Initial pre-mortem report: Subject is white woman, short, with slender build. Fully clothed. Short blond hair, blue eyes. Lightly tanned. No obvious signs of trauma. Distinguishing mark: black socks patterned with jack of hearts playing cards.

It's a dead giveaway.

Subject can be identified as Patricia D. Cornwell, author of the just-published "All That Remains," a novel that follows Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Virginia's chief medical examiner, on the trail of a serial killer who leaves a jack of hearts at the scene of each crime.

The novel is the third in a popular series featuring the heroine -- following the highly praised "Postmortem" of 1990 and last year's "Body of Evidence" -- and doubtlessly will reinforce the author's position in the post-Agatha Christie sorority that has gender-bent the once male-dominated world of crime fiction.

"We bring something to the genre that I think is very satisfying and gratifying to readers -- a sensitivity. No woman is going to write a grisly rape scene," Ms. Cornwell said recently during a book-signing appearance at Gordon's Booksellers in the Rotunda. "Women are no longer only the victims of crime. We're also in the professions that investigate them. . . . This is a reflection of the way walls are coming down for us. If you didn't have access to this kind of information, you couldn't have a Kay Scarpetta."

Dressed in a chic mannish suit of pants, jacket and tie -- and socks by Nicole Miller, the pattern-happy designer who has consulted Ms. Cornwell for a crime-themed creation -- the 36-year-old author briskly and amiably went about her task of signing books and meeting with her fans although the day began with a 6 a.m. radio interview and was stalled mid-day by one of those Washington-to-Baltimore traffic jams.

Ms. Cornwell's trademark is her fine detailing of forensics wizardry, the art and science as practiced by those who take the barest of bones -- literally, sometimes -- and reconstruct an entire murder.

In many ways, Ms. Cornwell does for the forensics set -- police detectives, FBI psychological profilers, ballistics experts and, of course, coroners -- what Tom Clancy does for the techno-military set: She unabashedly, unapologetically celebrates their culture and their characters, their street smarts and their sophisticated sleuthing.

In other words, she thinks what they do is pretty darn neat. So it's no wonder that many of her fans -- and personal friends -- are from that very world. (One prominent Johns Hopkins physician jokingly claims to have trained Dr. Scarpetta, who in earlier books is identified as a proud Hopkins grad, Ms. Cornwell said.)

"I think her books are terrific," said Dr. John Smialek, Maryland's chief medical examiner. "She has more insight into what medical examiners really do than other writers -- like in 'Silence of the Lambs,' which had the FBI agents doing the autopsies themselves. I wish they'd do some of our autopsies for us."

Ms. Cornwell, who earlier this year was allowed to attend Dr. Smialek's homicide investigation course for police detectives, uses firsthand knowledge for what Newsweek has called her "dead-on" depiction of her chosen milieu. And, again like Mr. Clancy, she has gained enviable access to such off-limits places as the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., which adds to the authenticity of her books.

A former police reporter for the Charlotte Observer and a computer analyst for the Virginia medical examiner's office, Ms. Cornwell's scenes involving newsrooms, police work and morgues indeed ring true, from the treacherous rivalries among reporters on the Washington Post, where one of her main characters plies her trade, to the dead ends and chance encounters that make up homicide investigations.

"I never knew anything about crime until I got the police beat in Charlotte," she said. "I grew up in Montreat, North Carolina, where we had a zero crime rate. No one ever locked their door."

But like her novels, there's another layer here: A chance question reveals that Ms. Cornwell herself was a victim of crime when she was about 5 years old. She was molested by a security guard in Miami, where she was born and lived until moving to North Carolina, and vaguely recalls a courtroom scene in which a pair of shorts were passed around as evidence. He was convicted, she said.

It's not something she brings up herself. Similarly, she is proud that her novels don't exploit violence.

Which is why she found it "a terrible irony" when police investigating a June 1991 murder in Sarasota, Fla., found a copy of Ms. Cornwell's "Postmortem" in the suspect's car and several similarities between the book and the crime. Ms. Cornwell does not believe she is responsible for that crime any more than, say, the movie "Taxi Driver" is responsible for the assassination attempt on President Reagan.

Still, there is no getting around that her novels benefit from the seemingly insatiable curiosity Americans have with crime in general and serial killers in particular -- an interest that has contributed to the popularity of true crime books and movies such as "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Basic Instinct."

She believes this represents a sort of wrestling with the violence that surrounds us.

"It becomes a viable threat to their everyday life. You can't read a newspaper without a horrific crime story every couple of pages," she said. "Death is the one card dealt to us that we can't do anything about. There's this continuing quest for a resolution, but there never is one. So I just write another book.

"I couldn't read my books if I didn't write them. I'm a wimp," she added. "That's my way of controlling it. I'm in the driver's seat."

And while her books are crime novels, it's obvious where her sympathies lie. There is no fascination bordering on admiration for criminals in her work.

"I believe these people should be consigned to oblivion. You think of Richard Speck -- everyone knows his name but can anyone name on of his victims? I don't want to know these people. I have no interest in interviewing them in prison. I'm interested in the victims and the humane people who do investigate these crimes every day," she said.

With her research and writing taking up about a year per book, Ms. Cornwell's personal life is much like her heroine's: They have little time for one. Both are divorced. (Ms. Cornwell left her reporting job in Charlotte to move to Richmond with her then husband, and still lives there and makes it the main locale of her novels.)

She has the trappings of success -- the Mercedes, the big house in Richmond's wealthiest neighborhood, the personal trainer -- but her frenzied schedule leaves little time to enjoy it all. She has a possible movie deal in the works and is in the midst of one of those mind-numbing, city-hopping book tours. The promotions blitz for "All That Remains" has landed her in People magazine, the Larry King show and National Public Radio and may lead to "The Tonight Show."

There's no sign of let-up in the future -- she expects to publish her fourth Kay Scarpetta mystery next year.

"It's called 'Cruel and Unusual,' " she said. "And it's both."

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