Will Kay Scarpetta one day be the first medical examiner to investigate a death in space?
The premise isn’t as out of this world as you might think.
Not that Patricia Cornwell’s new thriller, Chaos, out Tuesday, is about that. In this book, Scarpetta, director and chief of the Cambridge Forensics Center, processes a decidedly earthbound crime scene (one involving a slain bicyclist in a park) while being harassed by a high-tech stalker.
But Cornwell, whose international book tour brings her to the Dallas Museum of Art on Thursday, makes a tantalizing reference in the novel to another matter: the Columbia space shuttle disaster of 2003.
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Scarpetta’s plans to address an audience about the Columbia tragedy (specifically to discuss recovery and examination of remains that were scattered across 50 miles in Texas) are shelved by a more pressing case.
But might Scarpetta eventually deliver that speech in a future book? Might the author be planting the seed for an upcoming storyline?
“Could be,” Cornwell teases. “It’s a subject I know a lot about. It so happens that my main consultant for the forensic pathology in my books is the person who was the armed forces chief medical examiner at the time. He led the investigation and helped with the recovery and did the autopsies.
“Think about it: These are the only autopsy reports we have in which, where it lists ‘location of event,’ it’s going to say ‘outer space.’ The whole thing is fascinating.”
Which leads to our flight of fancy about a book sending Scarpetta into space.
“Someone once asked me, ‘What would your last Scarpetta book be?’” Cornwell says. “I told them, ‘Well, if I could choose, I would have the last one set on the moon.’
“Because imagine: If we ever have astronauts go back to the moon and someone dies up there, someone here is going to have to go bring them back, right? You can’t just leave dead bodies up there.
“There would be intriguing possibilities to consider. Under those conditions, with the laws of physics being different on the moon, what’s going to be different about those bodies?”
This is how Cornwell’s inventive mind works. It’s why her bestselling Scarpetta novels, 24 and counting, have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide.
When Cornwell published her first forensic thriller, 1990’s Postmortem, she had the genre all to herself. Now, a quarter of a century later, there are hundreds of other writers and dozens of popular TV series trodding the same turf.
To stay relevant, Cornwell continually has had to bring her “A” game.
“It’s actually pretty easy for me to keep up to date on all of the cutting-edge innovations, because I am innately interested in it,” she says. “If I wasn’t interested, I wouldn’t still be writing these books.”
That said, the focus of her storytelling has evolved over the years.
While the author devotes eight chapters and more than 70 pages of Chaos to the fascinating detail-oriented work at the first crime scene (something that would be reduced to a three-minute music video segment in a procedural TV drama), Cornwell never loses sight of what really fuels her narrative.
“After the emergence of TV shows like CSI, I had to reconfigure what I do,” Cornwell says. “I realized it’s no longer enough just to explore a different aspect of forensic science, a discipline such as toxicology or forensic fire investigation, the way I did in the 1990s, because everybody knows all that now.
“But I also realized that the most interesting thing in these books is Scarpetta herself — how she problem-solves when she goes to a crime scene, how she approaches something that really, truly at times is unapproachable.
“Scarpetta is what drives these stories, not the crimes, not the science.”
Meet the author
Patricia Cornwell will discuss Chaos at the Horchow Auditorium at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St., Dallas, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Tickets are $40, $30 for DMA members and $20 for students. The event is not a book signing, but pre-signed copies will be available for purchase. For information and to buy tickets, go to DMA.org.