Patricia Cornwell Talks New Book, 'Red Mist,' Forensics, and Angelina Jolie

Crime writer Patricia Cornwell returns with a new book featuring her heroine Scarpetta, Red Mist. She talks to Janice Kaplan about forensics, being a female writer, and Angelina Jolie.

Peter Ross / Newscom

Patricia Cornwell’s 19 crime novels featuring medical examiner Kay Scarpetta have helped bring forensic science to national prominence. With 100 million copies of her books now in print, Cornwell is often hailed as an expert on blood, bad guys, and DNA. Her interest is more than theoretical, and she funds numerous forensic organizations around the country. With her newest Scarpetta book, Red Mist, just out, she talks about crime, TV, and Angelina Jolie.

You’re practically the godmother of forensics in fiction. Do you watch shows like CSI and think, "Wait, I did that first"?

I don’t watch CSI. I’m more interested in seeing the real procedures than a dramatic interpretation. No disrespect towards CSI or any others, but I enjoy crime shows that are richer in character and story, like Criminal Minds. I’m making a guest appearance on that next month. It’s not a huge role—I don’t catch the bad guys or anything, since they don’t need my help for that. But I’m fascinated by profiling and forensic psychology.

Why do you think people are suddenly so intrigued by forensics?

The human capacity to be curious has always existed. Think of what happens when you walk into someone’s bedroom and see a strange array of things—the phone is in a certain place, a notebook is on a chair, a hat is hung up. It’s in our nature to re-create what the person was doing. We’re taking in data constantly—getting information about people that will help us navigate through the world. We apply the same curiosity to a crime scene. The greatest gift is our own eyes, sense of smell, and abilities to deduce. Add to that the proliferation of dazzling technologies that can help us rewind the tape and answer questions about why this person died and who did it and why.

Fiction has raised our crime-solving expectations, but how much high-tech equipment is being used in the real world?

It’s not just a matter of owning a high-tech instrument. I’ve seen a lot of sad situations where police departments get interesting technologies to find blood that’s invisible or lift fingerprints or whatever—and then can’t afford to train people to use them. Money is a big factor in this bad economy. This equipment is really expensive, and you’re going to see police take a real hit in terms of being able to do their work in the field.

We hear about rape test kits or DNA samples sitting on shelves for years with nobody looking at them. Why is that?

Backlog in the labs is a big problem. So much now constitutes evidence, and police turn in more than ever before. If you know you can get DNA off the mouse to a computer, then the mouse is coming in. Maybe you turn in the tissue you found in the wastepaper basket and some water out of the toilet. People are turning in everything but the kitchen sink, hoping for a few skin cells that might tell them a story.

What’s changed the most since you started at the medical examiner’s office?

The newer technologies in DNA testing have been the biggest change. A lot of what you see on TV—like light sources where fingerprints pop out or footprints appear in neon colors—has been around for a while. The equipment keeps changing, but people were using lasers and dusting powders that fluoresced when I started. With DNA, the ability to find out a lot more with a lot less has increased our ability for identification.

Is DNA the killer app in terms of solving crimes?

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The better it gets, the worse it gets in some ways. We can now get DNA from things you can hardly see—three or four skin cells. While that’s amazing, you still have to ask: how did it get there? Just because your DNA is at a crime scene doesn’t mean you had anything to do with that crime. Maybe you touched something that ended up in that room. I constantly remind people that crime isn’t solved by technology; it’s solved by people. You have to figure out—is this really significant? An investigator has to ask that question.

After 19 books with Kay Scarpetta, how do you feel about her these days?

I like her better now. In the first decade she was almost unrelentingly serious and had a difficult time with relationships. I was attempting to show a very harsh reality, so I was trying to be very linear and not have distractions. I kept to the point. Now that you can read forensic detail all over, I’m not just interested in what surgical instrument she’ll use when she walks in the morgue. I care even more about her reflections on what she’s about to do. She’s evolving and she’s more fun to be with.

Early in Red Mist, Scarpetta comes across letters complaining about how difficult she is, and that she needs to be warmed up, humanized, and have some good sex. Is that realistic for her world?

In her world and every world. When people are critical of powerful women, they use the words that are in those letters. She’s a bitch, or she’s cold, or what she needs is more sex. A lot of this is absolutely unfair and wrong. It’s just stereotypes—like calling men brutes.

As you’ve become more powerful, have you had to deal with similar complaints?

The biggest one I hear is that I’m successful because I’m gay and write like a man. OK, if that makes you more comfortable—but that’s ridiculous. I don’t know it’s true that I write like a man, but I’m just repeating what I hear—that my books are so popular because I’m not heterosexual. If I were a straight woman, obviously I wouldn’t be this successful.

That’s stunning. It’s about the last thing I’d imagine someone saying.

They’re not saying it as a compliment. It’s a way of putting a person down to say you do well at something because you’re not normal. But most people I deal with don’t have any issues at all, whether they’re scientists or police officers or my fans. The more prevailing problem is to get men to read a book that’s written by a woman about a female protagonist. You should at least give it a chance. Try spending 500 pages with this lady, she’s really cool.

Any progress with the movies? Is Angelina Jolie still planning to play Scarpetta?

We’re in the pre-production stages where it’s all about the screenplay, and it’s looking promising. Yes, Angelina Jolie is still attached to the project. So maybe that’s the key to getting more male readers. When I talk to men, I say that if you were sitting next to Scarpetta on an airplane, you would adore her. You would have such a great conversation. By the time you got where you were going, you’d be very happy. And I guess if she looked like Angelina Jolie, you’d never get off the plane.