Patricia Cornwell talks “Port Mortuary,” secrets and Jolie


When I first spoke with Patricia Cornwell last year, I was stuck by both her intelligence and thoughtfulness. The author of the world’s number one selling crime series featuring forensic pathologist, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Cornwell is not only articulate when describing the work involved in keeping her acclaimed series fresh and relevant. She is also keenly aware of the importance of her role as an out celebrity. We recently caught up with Cornwell again to discuss her new book, Port Mortuary, the 18th novel in the series, the Scarpetta film and how being gay influences her work. Port Mortuary reveals a surprising secret from Scarpetta’s past and brings her into new territory with the US government. Without spoiling it for the reader, can you talk about what inspired the novel?

Patricia Cornwell: When I first started the research for the next Scarpetta book, I decided I wanted to explore the Armed Forces Medical Examiner organization. Post 9/11, this group of people is involved in activities that are very different from the earlier days. Most people’s vague familiarity with them is through footage they see on TV when our fallen heroes are flown home from Iraq and Afghanistan and land at Dover Air Force Base and you see the dignified transfer of the flag-draped cases. But what people don’t know are the people who take care of them. That would be the Armed Forces Medical Examiner. These are our federal medical examiners, but they don’t just take care of our troops. They also take care of cases that fall under their federal jurisdiction so it’s an incredibly interesting bunch of people. I compare them to the FBI or James Bond of medical examiners because they are involved in gathering medical evidence and a lot of classified information. 

When I decided to do research on that, I realized I wanted Scarpetta to have a secret affiliation with the Department of Defense, and although it’s not always been active for the twenty years that we’ve known her, I needed a good explanation for why she had never discussed it with anyone. This prompted me to think, you know, we don’t really know that much about her prior to her Post Mortem days. Other than some rare brushes where I talk about things from her childhood, I’ve never really dug into who she is and who she was and how she actually got to be the Chief Medical Examiner of a sophisticated system like the Virginia system when she was quite young and new at being a forensic pathologists.

That’s when I realized that there’s something she’s not telling us, which led me into this very dark case that she had in South Africa. It was fun to take the reader on an almost subterranean journey where you’re not only exploring scary things that are happening to her now, but going back into something that is even scarier, something she feels shame about and feels it’s been unresolved.

AE: Were you surprised when you learned or figured out Scarpetta’s secret?

PC: Each book is a journey for me, too. I don’t start out knowing all of these things when I sit down. I start with the research. I knew, for example, that I was going to open with her in the shower in the locker room. That’s about all I knew. Then Scarpetta informs me of things. It’s a very strange process. It’s quite vibrant when I’m going through it. You sit there and think, “where is this all coming from?” But with the case in South Africa and her past, I was thinking, “you’re feeling really uncomfortable Scarpetta. What is it? There’s something you’re afraid to tell us.” I know it sounds like I’m channeling, but it’s a very unique experience. I learn something in every book.

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