Crime writer Patricia Cornwell hits 60 today, offering the perfect excuse for Lili la Scala to say thanks for Kay Scarpetta, a female protagonist kicking all manner of arse.
I remember where I first met Kay Scarpetta. I was staying in a hostel in Adelaide, Australia in 2009. My husband and I embarked on an immense (but ultimately pointless) argument that had descended into silence at the point where he had accidentally trodden on the laptop and cracked it right down the centre, requiring it to be replaced.
I had taken my leave and gone for a wander. I sat down by a bookshelf of books abandoned by previous travellers and, upon scanning the shelves, my eyes lit upon a dog-eared copy of Patricia Cornwell’s The Body Farm. I picked it up and read the back cover and was immediately intrigued by the macabre subject.
I crammed it in to my eyes, binge reading it in a couple of hours. I couldn’t put it down. The intelligence of Scarpetta, her arch coolness with a well-hidden depth of feeling and the attention to every gruesome detail had me utterly hooked from the first body dump. Here was a book, written by a woman at the top of her game, with a female protagonist who kicked all kinds of arse.
Kay Scarpetta is fiercely smart, passionate, an amazing cook and gorgeous to boot. I hunted out the previous books and started the series from the beginning and drove my husband crazy with my bookwormery. So we came home from tour with a new computer and a suitcaseful of books, this being the pre-Kindle days.
Patricia Cornwell, the creator of Scarpetta, is a highly respected forensics expert and this shows in every aspect of the books. It isn’t just the detail in the crime and the investigation but the forensic descriptions of cookery, of locations, of people. The minutia of description drags the reader into the books, so clearly described it’s almost as if you’re living and breathing in the same space as Scarpetta.
Your heart beats like a tom-tom as she dashes into a house in the middle of nowhere with backup still miles away. As the veil lifts and the killer is revealed, it’s inevitably someone you’ve met but it still manages to be a shock. I think I’ve only guessed right once.
One of the many joys of Cornwell is that she is so up to date with forensic technology that her books are bang on the money when it comes to modernity. I’m always in awe and vaguely confused when she talks tech in such technicolour detail, living as I do sometime around 1945, but when she dives in to the nitty gritty of the gory, drippy, stinky human remains business I am all ears, or indeed, eyes.
“Statistically, women are more likely to read forensic novels; for a woman to top the scene and the bestseller lists 25 years ago was a triumph.”
Over the years, I feel I’ve experienced Scarpetta’s life alongside my own. Her family, her love life (her choice of husband is a great one – Benton is as smart and gorgeous as she is) and even her interior decorating choices have been shared with me over the years.
When her niece, the technical genius, Lucy, came out, it was a rare occurrence in literature at the time. Even now, lesbians are underrepresented in modern mainstream fiction. It was a bold move for Cornwell and one that reflected similar discoveries in her own life. It is just extraordinary for a book to have not one, but two, completely different but equally strong and clever female leads.
Cornwell lives with her wife, the acclaimed Harvard neuroscientist Staci Gruber, and is something of an all action woman. She flies helicopters, scuba dives and has more than a passing interest in the work of Jack the Ripper.
Today there are so many female crime writers, all of whom owe a huge debt of gratitude to a woman who smashed through the glass ceiling of crime writing at a time when it was a scene dominated by men but adored by women. Statistically, women are more likely to read forensic novels; for a woman to top the scene and the bestseller lists 25 years ago was a triumph.
If it weren’t for the work of Cornwell blazing a trail with her books, the TV crime shows we enjoy today (I’m such a TV crime geek) such as CSI, Bones, Scandal or NCIS may not have the same place in our public consciousness.
Sometimes, when I’m alone in the house (in broad daylight only), I inwardly narrate my life as if it were a Cornwell novel, in the third person present tense. Luckily so far, I’ve avoided a grisly end at the hands of the person I’d least expect…
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Lili la Scala sings a bit, writes a bit and spends more time than is probably necessary discussing the toilet habits of her son. Bona fide vintage addict, though she is sure she sounds less tragic when described as a 'collector'.