Between the Lines: Patricia Cornwell
Refuelling the Creative Well
By Dawn Ius
Patricia Cornwell has spent almost a quarter century in a literary morgue, carving out 24 page-turning forensic thrillers featuring her fierce protagonist, Dr. Kay Scarpetta. More than 100 million copies of her novels have sold since her debut, Postmortem, back in 1990, and her books have been translated into 26 languages in over 120 countries.
And yet, despite this staggering international success, Cornwell had started to lose her enthusiasm for writing after 2016’s Chaos. It wasn’t the doom and gloom of the morgue—though that certainly played a part—but more that another character had started speaking to her, and that voice was more persuasive and much louder than Scarpetta’s. Deafening, actually.
“I’d always wanted to write about a female James Bond character,” she says. “And I felt like after Chaos I’d pushed Scarpetta as far as she could go. I never got the chance to write about Scarpetta in her formative years, and I wanted the opportunity to watch someone develop.”
Enter Captain Calli Chase—a NASA pilot, quantum physicist, cybercrime investigator, and the new heroine of Cornwell’s QUANTUM, a novel that takes readers from the depths of the morgue up into—well, outer space.
“I’m not writing crime thrillers anymore with this series,” Cornwell says. “So the focus isn’t going to be on serial killers.”
That doesn’t mean there won’t be crime or pulse-pounding action. In QUANTUM, Captain Chase detects a tripped alarm in the tunnels deep below a NASA research center—on the eve of a top secret space mission. It’s clear that this creates a situation ripe for sabotage—potentially with deadly consequences—but the danger is much more acute than Captain Chase first realizes.
Cornwell peppers in the necessary ingredients for a techno thriller—a spatter of dried blood, a missing security badge, a suspicious suicide—and then ties it all to Captain Chase herself: the disturbing clues all point to Calli’s twin sister, Carme, who’s been MIA for days.
The idea for a story about twins came while Cornwell was doing space research.
“In 2014, I met a NASA scientist and her twin sister,” she says. “They were fans of my books, and gave me an in-depth tour. I was inspired.”
Cornwell would go on to spend much more time at NASA, not just touring the facilities and interviewing scientists—though of course, that’s part of it. But Cornwell knows that in QUANTUM’s sequel—Spin—Captain Chase will be required to go into space, and she wanted to know how that would feel. Well, as much as she could while keeping her feet firmly planted on earth, if not on the ground.
American biochemistry researcher, retired NASA astronaut, and former NASA Chief Astronaut “Peggy Whitson put me up in the robotic harness,” Cornwell says. “It’s really hard. Even to walk in a space suit is difficult.”
Necessary research, though, in order to lend the same authenticity to this series that Cornwell is known for in her Scarpetta books. QUANTUM is a riveting tale for sure, but Cornwell’s reason for writing it, and starting a new series, go well beyond storytelling basics.
“My hope is that a lot of young people get excited about what’s going on with our space programs,” she says. “With the Scarpetta books, I wanted to understand—and help others understand—death and violence. With the commercialism of space these days, we all might be able to be astronauts someday and I have this opportunity to help us prepare for that.”
Indeed, in QUANTUM Cornwell has expertly woven in the research that is sure to get readers excited about the potential of modern space travel, and in the process, created another strong—and intelligent—female to guide us through each novel. She hopes readers love Captain Chase as much as they do Scarpetta, but even if it takes them a couple of books to get there, Cornwell says she’s okay with that.
“I’m not trying to reinvent myself,” she says. “I’d quit writing after Chaos—I said I wasn’t going to do any more books. I was burnt out.”
In fact, Cornwell started researching this project with the idea of pitching it to Amazon as a TV series—but it turns out, Cornwell can’t get away from her roots. Not yet. And while crafting the book that Amazon really wanted, she felt her passion for novel writing return.
Her renewed enthusiasm is palpable—and infectious.
“I’m excited to share with readers what has excited me,” she says. Though she does allow that she took some risks with this series that might make readers anxious, including a cliffhanger ending in QUANTUM that begs for the immediate release of Spin.
Sorry, fans, there’s a year-long wait to find out what happens to Callie and her sister, and whether Captain Chase will conquer her fears and demons to execute a spacewalk. “I do apologize for the suspenseful cliffhanger, but even if I’d gone one more chapter, it would still be a cliffhanger…”
As a concession, Cornwell offers some insight into whether Scarpetta will make another appearance—and, thankfully, it’s not outside the realm of possibility.
“The bigger question is whether she will come back to me,” Cornwell says. “I don’t blame her for walking out on the job. I think she got tired and is stepping out on me. But I have a feeling she’ll be back.”
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