Medical examiners were not sexy, crime-solving heroes when Patricia Cornwell wrote her first Kay Scarpetta mystery 22 years ago.
Today, with the publication of the 20th book featuring the pasta-cooking, sharp-dressing forensic scientist, there is an entire industry of sexy medical examiners on television, and Cornwell accepts the responsibility.
"I think you can blame Scarpetta. She opened the gate that made it accessible," Cornwell said.
Cornwell's latest, "The Bone Bed," features a familiar cast of characters: Scarpetta, her husband FBI agent Benton, her billionaire computer-savvy niece Lucy, lunkish homicide detective Marino and a deranged serial killer.
It is as heavily plotted as any Cornwell novel, featuring a dead dinosaur hunter in Alberta, a murder trial in Boston, a body that floats out of the ocean entangled with a leatherback turtle and some unfinished drama between Scarpetta and the men in her life.
"I don't seem to be capable of writing a book that's not complex," said Cornwell, speaking from a book tour stop in California.
Along with the violence and heavy breathing, the novel offers a heavy dose of science: forensics, paleontology, marine biology and information technology all vie for the reader's attention. Interestingly, Cornwell, 56, was not a science whiz at Davidson College, and inadvertently set her lab on fire with a bit of bunsen burner carelessness. On the other hand, Cornwell worked for six years in the office of the chief medical examiner in Virginia, absorbing a grounding in Scarpetta's skills.
The title of her novel refers to an actual dig in Alberta, Canada, where herds of prehistoric creatures died all at once, leaving a uniquely crowded deposit of fossil remains. Cornwell participated in a dig at the site in the rainy summer of 2011, with friends Donna Dixon and Dan Aykroyd, and decided "this would be a very good place for someone to get murdered. ... This is too cool to not be part of what happens in the book."
Similarly, back in her hometown of Boston she found a way to get hands-on experience with a leatherback turtle for other sections of the book.
"I got to touch one, smell one," she said. "When I have Scarpetta go in the water or remove a barnacle from its shell, I want you to be right there with me."
Cornwell has written novels featuring other protagonists, and has also maintained a long fascination with Jack the Ripper, writing an analysis in 2002, "Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper — Case Closed," offering evidence that the identity of the famed 19th-century British serial killer was artist Walter Sickert. (She also has purchased 30 of Sickert's paintings.)
While other "Ripperologists" disputed that claim, Cornwell says that Sickert's letters, which entered public domain this year, bolster her theory, and that she's working on a revised version of the treatise for publication next year. "It's not going to be too far down the road that people will see that Walter Sickert is quite likely Jack the Ripper," she said. "Everything that I find strengthens my case."