AE: Your first crime novel, Postmortem, came out in 1990. You’ve talked about how there are elements about your writing process that have stayed the same, but what’s changed?
PC: There are humongous changes. My writing was much more linear back then. In the olden says, the main character of the series was really forensics because I was showing people something they’d never seen before. People had not been in a morgue. They had not been in a laboratory. They had not been with crime scene investigators. No one had seen the things I saw everyday because of the research and so that was center stage.
Now my characters kind of wear that like an old pair of shoes because, yes, I’m going to show you the latest and greatest and newest, but really because of how inundated we are with forensic science and medicine and crime scene procedurals that can’t be the main character anymore.
I’d rather have the stories much more thriller, more suspenseful. And of course a huge character in this is the relationships between the characters themselves. These people have a lot of baggage with each other.
AE: This might be a question better suited for Scarpetta, but where do you imagine forensic science in the future? What major changes do you think we’re going to see?
PC: I think you’re going to see that the more things change, the more they stay the same. That the technology is going to proliferate to the point where you can do things very quickly and get answers in matters of minutes or hours that used to take days or weeks.
Some of the fantasy that’s on television shows may in fact turn out to be real. You may have handheld devices on crime scenes that can give you instant answers on DNA profiles and we certainly don’t have that now. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we don’t get to that stage.
And so the technology is going to work more and more to remove the human elements from the investigation because it’s going to be all so automated, but what you’re going to find is you can’t teach these things to think. Not the way human beings think, where we have to deliberate and use deductive abilities.
Patricia Cornwell in a morgue, circa 1992
Photo credit: William F. Campbell
It’s interesting that you would ask this question because that is exactly what Scarpetta is faced with in the opening of the book. She’s working on the body of this dead woman, and every bit of technological evidence and eyewitness report makes you think that this woman was out jogging and she was still alive early in the morning and now she’s dead. But then Scarpetta is looking at what the body’s telling her and the body’s telling her a different story. It’s saying that this lady has been dead for a while.
That’s where the human element, or the Scarpetta factor, comes in and where you say, Okay, maybe both things can be true. And that’s not ever going to be replaced by handheld device. So I think ten or fifteen years from now you’re going to have human beings who may have all of this technology, but they are still going to be asking the same questions and be stumped by the same things yet again.
AE: And the advances in technology can also pose new problems.
PC: I hate to say it, but the other thing that happens is bad guys get smarter too.They figure out ways to foil the process so you have to deal with the way they’re thinking as well. Do I ever think we’re going to get on top of this problem because of forensic science? Absolutely not. The smarter we get it doesn’t seem to stop a whole lot. You have to remember that forensic science and medicine are the cleanup crew.