Reading Matters

For Patricia Cornwell, gruesome details win readers

Patricia Cornwell cut her journalistic teeth as a reporter for The Charlotte Observer.
Patricia Cornwell cut her journalistic teeth as a reporter for The Charlotte Observer. Charlotte

Patricia Cornwell hung up the phone, ran into the ladies’ room and wept.

Yes, I swear it. Around 1980, this bestselling crime novelist was a recent Davidson College graduate working as a feisty police reporter for the Charlotte Observer. That morning the paper had run her interview with a woman assaulted by a serial rapist.

“How can you be such a monster?” the woman on the phone wailed, “How could you do this to me!”

Cornwell, then Patsy Daniels, had used gut-wrenching descriptions to show what the woman suffered. But reading those same details in the newspaper, the woman felt assaulted all over again. Cornwell, now 59, says she hated that she hurt her.

A few years later, Cornwell would learn that realistic details may horrify newspaper readers. But they are the heart of the best crime fiction.

Cornwell’s “Depraved Heart,” due this week, includes a number of dead-on descriptions. For example: Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta is examining a nude body “…with its greenish discoloration and bloating in the abdominal area from bacteria and gases… .”

In a recent telephone interview from Boston, Cornwell says her first attempt at a crime novel was “bad, bad, bad, and not even good bad.”

She was living in Richmond, working as a computer analyst in the office of the chief medical examiner. She had used a few details from her day job in a novel rejected by Mysterious Press. Cornwell called the editor to ask why.

“Are these the same details you see in the morgue every day?” Cornwell remembers the editor asking. “I want to see what you see.”

“Another thing,” Cornwell says the editor told her. “Ditch the guy and make the woman the chief medical examiner.”

As every Scarpetta fan knows, that’s exactly what Cornwell did in “Postmortem,” her first novel, which captured all the major mystery writing awards – the first book ever to claim all the big ones in a single year.

So how does she handle getting up close and personal with the dead and decomposing?

“I don’t like going to the morgue,” Cornwell says. “The smells are horrible. It’s ugly and depressing. I keep it bottled up, and I’m usually a wreck by the end of the day.”

As Scarpetta says in “Depraved Heart”: “Death is greedy and ugly. It assaults our senses. It sets off every alarm in our cells... . Be careful. Stay away. Run for the hills. Your turn could be next.”

“My magic,” Cornwell says, “is borne out of a great deal of melancholy.”