21st Century,  Essays,  Medical Humanities

Why Patricia Cornwell is One of the Best Crime Fiction Writers (And Why You Should Be Reading Her Works)

‘Hi! My name is Elena and I’m writing a Humanities doctoral thesis. On Contemporary Literature. On crime fiction. On Patricia Cornwell’s books’. That is how much it takes me these days to get a look of embarrassment from many people, although luckily not my beloved ones. Not only am I pursuing a PhD in Humanities, which apparently is not nearly as important as my expected Medicine career (on which acquaintances gave up a long time ago), but I am also studying bad literature. Airport literature. Beach readings. Pop-corn crime fiction. Best-sellers. You name it. I have chosen the wrong path. Or so they say. Because, how can you build your career on Patricia Cornwell’s books?

Patricia Cornwell

Well, let’s start with the beginning. Patricia Cornwell has been a constant presence in my life for 3 years now. We are still getting to know each other but more importantly, I am getting to know Dr. Kay Scarpetta. If you have wandered a bit around this blog, you may have found my reviews of the Scarpetta series (and if not, click here). The blonde, blue-eyed Florida forensic doctor is my go-to when I am stressed or overworked (or both, which happens quite usually). She knows how it feels to sleep 5 hours a day. She knows how it feels to have to fight your way to your goals because they are your goals and your passions – and damn! – you never ever give up. She knows sleep deprivation can be fought with good coffee and carbohydrates. In short, she knows me better than many people and she makes me feel I’m not alone. And I have to thank Patricia Cornwell for this.

I am completely aware – current sleep deprivation and all – that I have just told you a fictional character from 1990 knows me better than many people. I may even admit preferring her company to real-life human beings many times. But it’s OK. As years go by I have learned to go with whatever works to make it, and forensic crime fiction has proved infallible on this. However, I have to admit it did not feel right at the beginning. Many times it meant hearing a deep voice – which also happened to be male and middle-aged – telling me those books were not enough. That kind of literature was not supposed to appeal to me, the A-student, the feminist, the voracious reader, the PhD candidate. I should be reading good literature, the classics, complex contemporary authors who openly wrote about depression, politics, gender issues, and so on, and so forth. But I am now safe. I have now shot down that voice and put it into one of Scarpetta’s fridges so it (he?) can think about what he tried to do to me: he almost robbed me of my passion and my thesis.

As a post-graduate, Humanities student you are taught that there is literature you study, and literature you read in your free time. One is good, another one is bad. I’ll let you guess which one is each. Easy peasy. However, I have been lucky enough to be a Cultural Studies and Contemporary Literature student as well. And I have been under one of my current PhD Supervisors’ care for 6 years now, a wise woman we’ll call “M” and who helped me realise that enjoying crime fiction was fine. More than fine, she told me I had it in me to do research on it. I had it on me to deliver papers on it. Even in the UK. I could even write a thesis on it. And that’s what I’m currently doing: I am the proud writer of a thesis on Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series. And I couldn’t be happier.

So, let’s face it. Let’s dissect it: Why do people disregard Patricia Cornwell’s writings? Why is Kay Scarpetta such a controversial character? Well, I am sorry to tell you, you will have to read my thesis to find critical, theorised answers to those questions. Meanwhile, I will go with what I have been told or what I have read during my research in a more conversational tone:

1)    Crime fiction is not serious literature – I beg the question, what is good literature? Who gets to say so? Why? In which languages is the so-called serious literature written? Time to think about it.

2)    Popular literature is not good. Period – As cultural studies have proven, popular literature is actually the way in which changes are more rapidly inscribed in literature, then read, then thought about, then discussed, then written about more.

3)    Forensic literature and TV shows are not realistic – Maybe, maybe not. I truly believe were they to be realistic, they would find a very specific audience: those forensic scientists who cannot get away from their work at home. Plus, all kinds of narrations are not realistic by definition because they imply the narrator’s one and only point of view. Then, they imply a take on reality, which is even more interesting than based-on-facts narrations.

4)    It reads quickly, it’s a guilty pleasure – If it reads quickly, then we should praise the author’s ability to make you drop out of your real life to go and live in Scarpetta’s world some time every day. As for the guilty pleasure. Why does pleasure have to be associated with guilt? I mean, why? Just enjoy it! (And yes, this applies to cake and chocolate as well, but I don’t think this is the space to write about my Cookie Monster addiction to sweets). Crime fiction has been historically associated with guilt because of the supposed moral corruption that came from reading these novels. I can assure you, we’re not depraved hearts reading crime fiction.

By now, you should have been convinced of the importance of Patricia Cornwell as a crime fiction writer. I would even add, as a feminist, crime fiction woman writer in American literature. However, if my almost bouncing out of your screen through this post is not enough, maybe I should mention that Patricia Cornwell is widely regarded as the founder of forensic crime fiction. CSI, Bones, and all the other forensic novels that we enjoy would not be there were it not for Cornwell’s convincement that Postmortem, the first instalment in the Kay Scarpetta series, was a good novel and deserved to be published.

Finally, I think it is important to stress the importance of the Kay Scarpetta series for crime fiction. I was born in 1989, so DNA profiling is something I grew up hearing and knowing about. So were mobile telephones and GPS. I just always knew about them, they were always there. Can you imagine solving a crime without them? Now, many people will say ‘Of course, haven’t you read Sherlock Holmes or Wilkie Collins?’. But, can you imagine solving a crime in the late 20th century without technology and medicine? Funnily enough, Scarpetta introduces DNA profiling as an expensive and innovative possibility in Postmortem, when blood type is not enough to track down a serial killer who is targeting Richmond’s young, professional, middle-class women.

And that is just another beauty of the Scarpetta series: women are present, and women are given a voice, even though many times that voice has to be filtered through Scarpetta (because the women are dead, and only she can read them). I have now read enough academic texts to do some subtext reading on the novels, and although I do not wholeheartedly agree with Cornwell’s supposed conservative discourse, I will still give her the benefit of having introduced specific themes and characters to contemporary crime fiction.

Before you roll your eyes at my fangirling, let me be clear: I am not saying that Patricia Cornwell’s novels are perfect, far from it. But they stand for a moment in literary history when women changed the rules in crime fiction. For the first time, there was a Chief Medical Examiner who was a woman, who happened to be beautiful (why not?), and who was the best at her job. And she didn’t care. She didn’t care for most men she worked with thought she did not deserve to be there. She stood her ground and pulled rank if necessary. She broke away with traditional gender roles that would locate her at home, or worried about her family, and became a middle-aged woman who had just gone through a divorce, who had an amazing job she loved, and money enough to buy a new Mercedes if her current one broke down. In short, Cornwell gave readers – through Scarpetta’s life – the possibility to challenge who they were told to be by society and become instead whoever they wanted to be. Guiltless. Fearless. And proudly. At least while they spent time in Scarpetta’s world.

So, if Cornwell is still not your cup of tea, I get it because forensic crime fiction is not for everyone. But, with this post, I wanted to put down some reasons why her work and her Dr Kay Scarpetta series are game changers in contemporary crime fiction and feminism. And, next time you are tired, overworked, sleep deprived or dismissed because you happen to be a woman (if you are), at least you know now there is someone out there who has gone through the same and has come out triumphant of it. And although I’d love to say it’s me, I would like to officially introduce you to my friend Kay, Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia. I think you will get along like a house on fire.

The latest Kay Scarpetta novel, Depraved Heart, is out now:

Depraved Heart

This post is part of the official Depraved Heart Tour. Did you enjoy it? Check more Patricia Cornwell and Kay Scarpetta posts:

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  • A Little Blog of Books

    I’ve never read any of Patricia Cornwell’s books but I really want to now that I’ve seen how passionate you are about her work! I think the reputation crime fiction has had is very unfair and is part of a wider prejudice against other genres (romance, sci-fi etc) outside “literary fiction”. Everyone should just read books they enjoy!

    • Elena

      Thank you! Will you let me know if you finally read Cornwell? 🙂

      I’ve studied why crime fiction has such a reputation, and I can tell you it’s totally unfair and based on prejudices such as “crime fiction will morally corrupt you”. Nonsense. I’m glad I’ve found a community online – and offline too – of people who are proud crime fiction readers 🙂

  • vicky blake

    I found this very interesting. I read her at the beginning and really enjoyed her and I take your point about how she was groundbreaking but at a certain point I just couldn’t stand her anymore. A sort of grandiosity crept in which drove me nuts and my feeling was that she needed a good editor to pull her up on a few things. Then there was the one which figured a hairy man – I forget which one – and she opened the door and … I threw the book against the wall and vowed I’d never read another! But this post has got me thinking maybe I should try her again!

    • Elena

      I have only read the first 10 in the Scarpetta series, so I can’t tell you a lot about the whole series, but I do get what you say. I’ve been told by many that the series go downhill after Scarpetta moves out of Richmond. So sad! I’m actually scared of reading beyond book #10.

  • themisanthropologist

    Very interesting major! I’d love to study that if I could go back to school. And there’s nothing wrong with “airport” reads / bestsellers. I’ve read 1 or 2 Cornwell books – The Body Farm, and Postmortem. I read them when I was doing my Masteral thesis too..mine was on Physical Anthropology looking to specialize in forensics 🙂

    • Elena

      Dear Misanthropologist. Can I take you for coffee and question you on your thesis? How VERY interesting! Could you please tell us (me!!!) more about the Scarpetta series in relation to anthropoogy? Postmortem and The Body Farm are my two favourite Scarpetta novels, so good choice!

      • themisanthropologist

        Well, it’s been more than 10 years since so I don’t remember much of the novels, but I do remember my thesis advisor recommending the books, though not as academic sources; more like a ‘this is what you should expect when you want to get into forensic work.’

  • MarinaSofia

    I love your passionate defence of crime fiction! And I’ve read quite a few Patricia Cornwell in my time, although, like Vicky, not so much lately. I did feel they were getting a little repetitive and, yes, possible ‘grandstanding’. That said, I haven’t tried the most recent ones, and it’s difficult for any writer to be at the top of their game all the time in such a long series.

    • Elena

      Thank you, Marina. It is always a pleasure when someone tells me how passionate I am about crime fiction. I’m glad it shows 🙂

      Everyone is telling me the same about the series, and as I’ve said to Vicky, I’m a bit scared of going beyond book 10. But we’ll see. I love the character study each novel is rather than the crime itself. And if it comes a day when I don’t enjoy the series anymore, I can always re-read Postmortem, which I think is a fantastic crime novel and an outstanding debut (and and even more impressive inauguration of the forensic thriller subgenre).

  • crimeworm

    It’s hard to believe she’s on book 23 of the series, isn’t it? I think it’s often the readers who change over that period – I’ve been reading her from the beginning (ditto Jonathan Kellerman and Michael Connelly) and did stop for a few years, mainly due to my irritation at Lucy! But I reviewed Depraved Heart, which appeared to be building up to something, so I’m back in the gang! My friend did his PhD on Scottish Crime Fiction; he managed to get it published and if you like “Tartan Noir” it’s well worth a read (it’s called Tartan Noir by Len Wanner; I’ll review it soon.) Good for you Elena, for ploughing your own furrow!

  • Inés

    I’m reading old posts from “Books and Reviews” just for fun and I find them really interesting and inspiring! 🙂 It makes me feel angry and sad the fact that some people disregard Humanities studies as something we don’t need, as if ony Science were socially relevant and profitable :(. Thank goodness, my parents and friends -some of which have also pursued Humnities degrees- have always supported me :). My thesis is about how the writer is portrayed in film as a fictional carácter, and I couldn’t be enjoying it more!! Best of luck with your thesis, Elena xxx

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