Monday, November 29, 2010

The Cornwell Factor

This is it.  The blog I have been waiting to do since I first started Reading Under the Covers.  This is my comprehensive review of the thrilling works of Patricia Cornwell, who burst onto the literary stage just over 20 years ago with her first novel, Postmortem.  The book launched the incredibly successful Kay Scarpetta series which just reached book number 18 with the release of Port Mortuary, which will be available in bookstores tomorrow.  This blog post is Cornwell and Scarpetta's story.

Patricia Cornwell, a native of Florida, has lived something of a charmed life.  At five, her father left the family on Christmas day and Patricia's mother moved the family to North Carolina, where they lived not so far from Billy Graham's church.  To add to Cornwell's already traumatic childhood, her mother could not mentally handle raising her, and Patricia was sent to live with foster parents.  A quiet strength built up inside Cornwell during these years and her hardships laid the path for great things.

Cornwell received a Bachelor's in English and eventually married one of her English professors and took a job writing the crime beat for her local newspaper.  The job was transformative for her future career as it led her to a job working at the Chief Medical Examiner's office in Richmond, VA.  This was where Kay Scarpetta was born.

Dr. Kay Scarpetta starts off as the Chief Medical Examiner of Richmond in Cornwell's early novels.  Scarpetta proves to be as much a detective as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot.  She finds clues to murders on the autopsy table and she's not afraid to go to the darkest areas of Richmond to uncover the truth surrounding a mysterious death.  Scarpetta is surrounded by a faithful ensemble cast including her niece; Lucy, colleague/boyfriend/husband; Benton Wesley, and the ever ambiguous Pete Marino.

Although America has become fascinated by the world of forensics resulting in television shows such as CSI and Bones, Cornwell's first novel was turned down SEVEN TIMES before Scribner's finally published it.  Publishers told her that nobody would want to read about what goes on in a morgue.  I'm sure when Postmortem hit the bestseller list all the publishers who had turned Cornwell down simultaneously smacked their heads and exclaimed, "I should've had a V8!"  Fledgling writers should remember this when feeling their own despair about not being published.  Even the best have to fight to get their books on the shelf.

Even though the success of her novels has made her an international crime fiction icon, Patricia Cornwell's life has not been without its struggles.  In 2007, she bravely announced that she is gay and is currently married to Dr. Staci Gruber, who teaches at Harvard Medical School.  Cornwell has also addressed having bipolar disorder, which is perhaps why some of her novels are particularly dark.

Cornwell's own writing has come under scrutiny in the past decade.  In 2003, Cornwell released her first Scarpetta novel in three years, Blow Fly.  The book was criticized for a choppy plot and the fact that the point of view moved from first person (Scarpetta's) to the third person.  Subsequent novels were also bashed by critics.  Even when Cornwell branched out and started two new series (Andy Brazil and Win Garano) the reviews didn't improve.  In fact, they got worse in the case of the Andy Brazil novels.  However, it is interesting to note that her novels have gotten better since marrying Dr. Gruber.  Just my own observation.  Cornwell has also said that she will only be focusing on the Scarpetta series and has no other plans to write more novels about Andy Brazil or Win Garano.

Probably the biggest upheaval Cornwell has faced is the media buzz surrounding her controversial book, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed in which she claims that painter, Walter Sickert was responsible for the Whitechapel murders.  Ripper and Sickert experts were, and still are, infuriated with Cornwell's accusations, but after reading the book myself, I tend to side with Cornwell.

Through it all, Cornwell has remained a class act.  She stays connected with fans through Twitter and Facebook and always shows an interest in her readers and what they have to say.  I'm actually going to a signing in Chicago this Thursday where I will have a chance to meet her in person.  I hope I remember how to talk.

Port Mortuary has already been available in the UK for about a month and has been receiving great reviews.  The book is once again told through Scarpetta's point of view, and she is facing her toughest case yet.  A body was left in the morgue freezer where it continued to bleed, indicating the person was still alive when placed there.  Scarpetta must figure out what happened before her career and reputation are ruined.  I can't wait.

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