Patricia Cornwell is back in Richmond. And in her imagination, so is Dr. Kay Scarpetta, the fictional medical examiner and master sleuth whom Cornwell has written into a major literary success.
They’re walking the halls of Richmond police headquarters, consulting with Chief Alfred Durham, having lunch around the corner at Tarrant’s, taking a tacky lights tour ...
It’s surprising and rewarding to be visiting after 15 years, Cornwell said in her suite at the Omni Richmond Hotel. She just had finished her police interviews in Richmond and Henrico County.
She soon would be heading to dinner with two old friends — Dr. Marcella Fierro, the retired medical examiner on whom Scarpetta is based; and Roxane Gilmore, Virginia’s first lady during Cornwell’s last years in Richmond.
The first 10 Scarpetta books were based in Virginia’s capital, but then Scarpetta, like Cornwell, moved on. The character most recently has lived in Massachusetts, where Cornwell lives with neuroscientist Staci Gruber, an associate professor at Harvard.
The books have been incredibly successful. More than 100 million copies have sold in more than 100 countries, earning millions for Cornwell and her company.
She also was cheated of millions, according to a lawsuit she filed against her former financial company. A jury awarded her $50.9 million in 2013, but the company appealed and the final verdict still is not decided.
For the 25th book in the Scarpetta series, Cornwell had already started on a tale based in Cambridge. Then, she visited Richmond last summer to see Gilmore. It was the first time she had been back for more than a book tour stop since she left in 2001.
“We were driving around, and she was showing me how things had changed,” Cornwell said. “I was also struck with things that hadn’t changed.
“I realized just how (much a) part of my emotional fabric it is. Nothing is ever the same as the place where it all started. I felt this overwhelming pull of being drawn back to where it had all begun.”
She put aside the other manuscript.
“I’m going to have her wake up and she’s in Richmond ... as at least the acting chief for something that’s going on,” Cornwell said.
“I don’t know where she’s going to go or if she’ll stay after that. We’ll have to see if everybody still wants her here.”
Starting over means the follow-up to the 2016 book, “Chaos,” will not be ready next fall. Cornwell said she needs to spend a lot more time in Richmond to add the authenticity that grounds her thrillers.
She approaches her research with the eyes of a former police reporter — her first job as a writer was at The Charlotte Observer.
“I have to get out there and get right in the face of it, take notes on paper,” she said. “I also take pictures with my phone. ...
“This morning when I got up, I was looking out at the sun rising over the James River. I was trying to figure out, is that silver, is it more grayish, is it blue?” She’ll look at her photo later and decide.
“You’ve got to feel the wind, how cold it was when you got out of the car. You’ve got to smell the coffee from the shop you’re walking past.
“You infuse that into Scarpetta, and then people feel like they’re walking in her shoes down that sidewalk, with the wind blowing on her, getting ready to turn into the door of the former drugstore where she’s going to get the open-faced turkey sandwich that I just had for lunch.”
Scarpetta seems to have been unconsciously working her way back to Richmond in the last few books, Cornwell said.
“Let’s just take ‘Dust’ (2013). ... She’s having this flashback of when she’s packing up and leaving Richmond, and it’s pouring rain outside the garage door and (Pete) Marino’s in there and they’re drinking beer together and smoking.
“It’s a totally made-up scene. That doesn’t come from anything I remember. But she remembers a lot of things she hasn’t told me.”
In “Depraved Heart” (2015), the opening scene has Scarpetta unexpectedly confronted with video from her niece’s days in training at Quantico.
Cornwell said she has not decided on a case to explore in the new book, but she knows what one subplot will be.
“When I worked at the medical examiner’s office at 9 N. 14th St. before it was demolished, there was a facial reconstruction that I used to see in Dr. Fierro’s office up on the filing cabinet.
“I’ve never forgotten it. I think it was a boy, a murder victim. ... When I was down there, they know who I’m talking about because it’s still not solved.
“What’s going to happen, that’s not why she’s here, but she’s going to look at that and ... she’s going to figure it out, because she can’t let it go. ... I’m even going to have her get evidence from the bone today that you couldn’t get back then.
“It’s going to take you all the way over to Great Britain. ... But I’m also going to have something that’s going on now. I’m not sure what that is yet. It will come to me.
“I don’t ever know what I’m doing until I just jump into it. I let the research guide me. ... I’m like blotting paper — I absorb everything and try to get the lay of the land and that’s where the ideas come from.
“In many ways, I’m really just a journalist. That’s what’s made this work for me.”
In 1983, Patricia Daniels Cornwell came to Richmond as the wife of a divinity student at Union Theological Seminary.
The marriage did not last, but she kept the last name.
In North Carolina, she had lived in the same small community as evangelist Billy Graham. Her first book was a biography of his wife, Ruth Graham.
In Richmond, she decided to write books about crime.
“I realized I don’t know what happens to the body, because they would never tell me that when I was a journalist. The medical examiner would never call me back,” she said.
She met someone who knew Fierro and arranged an interview at the state crime lab.
“We sat in this conference room and started talking. I asked what’s new. I was told two things. There’s this new technology called DNA that everybody’s hearing about. This was 1984.
“And there’s this thing called lasers. Well, my favorite show when I was a kid was ‘Star Trek.’ This sounds like something I might want to know about.
“That’s what turned the tables for me. It wasn’t just the medical examiner part of it. It was science. Things are changing. I wanted to be sitting in the front-row seat when it does.”
Dr. David K. Wiecking, then the chief medical examiner, agreed to let her help with technical writing for the medical/legal journal. Before long, she was hired.
“I thought I’d whiz in there and spend a few weeks and write a novel,” she said. “I didn’t know it would take me six years.
“That’s the best thing that could have happened to me. I wouldn’t have known what I needed to know to go on and keep doing it forever.”
Cornwell now consults with people around the world to get the technical details right for her mysteries. Gruber, her wife, also adds input and advice.
“As a Harvard neuroscientist, she’s a little busy to do a whole lot,” Cornwell said. “She’s very, very smart, and she helps with a lot of things, thank goodness. You reach out to the best and brightest.”
Two of her consultants, Jim Molinaro and Howie Ryan of Highlands Forensics, travel with her. Both are former police officers, and they were impressed with what they have seen here, she said.
“Frankly, how you handle your forensic cases in Virginia is the best I’ve seen anywhere,” she said.
She likes the centralized system with four district offices and one chief overall. She likes having the medical examiner and forensics labs in the same building.
“There’s cross-education,” she said. “You can follow the evidence. You’re a much better medical examiner if you know what people can do with evidence, because then you know what to collect.
“You’re a much better forensic scientist if you know what the medical examiner is interested in. All of it is a synergy that you just don’t find anywhere else. And honestly, if I’d not had access to that, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”
Neither would Scarpetta, who not only is a medical examiner but also is a forensics expert.
“She knows what to do at crime scenes. She knows what it all means,” Cornwell said. “I wouldn’t have been able to think that way if I had not started out at a place that had the full scope of all of it.”
Richmond also is the place where Cornwell learned how to be famous.
“I didn’t know how I was supposed to act. I became rich and famous all at once,” she said. “I grew up a little ragamuffin in a town of 200 people. How was I supposed to know what to do?
“Hopefully, you grow into things and you get some common sense and don’t take yourself quite so seriously.”
When she looks back, she has to laugh at her obsession with flashy designer clothes and stretch limousines. For her recent Richmond visit, she chose a knee-length black leather coat accented with brass studs and big buttons — not exactly sedate but not anything like an outfit she remembers from her flashy days.
“One night I was going out to Ruth Chris with a bunch of my friends. We drive up in this stretch limousine. I’m dressed in this designer outfit and it’s blaze orange — the skirt, the jacket, the shoes. ...
“I’m commenting to my friends, ‘I don’t know why everybody is staring at me so much tonight.’
And then I look down and think, ‘It’s because you look like a freaking traffic cone. They’re not staring at you because you’re famous. They’re staring at you because you look like a nut job. Like Elvis on a bender.’
“I look back on it, and I’m kind of glad I did it. You have to be silly at least once in your life. I got my silliness out of my system in this town.”
She’s a different person now. “I’m 60 years old. With that hopefully comes some wisdom. I enjoy having a very different perspective on things.”
She calls Richmond unforgettable, in part because of “a certain nobility about the past ... that can also be extraordinarily irritating. ... There’s an oldness about it that goes beyond just the monuments that we see.
“It’s a spirit that I deeply respect. It’s bitten me in the butt many times and made me sometimes feel rather unwelcome, particularly back in the old days. ...
“I feel there’s a lot left to be mined in this part of the world. I never was through with it. I just felt it was time for me to move on.
“Sometimes you have to go away before you can come back. I needed to go away for a long time to come back and tackle it again.”
Bringing Scarpetta to Richmond is a way of giving back to the place where everything started, she said.
“I’ve come home,” she said. “I may not live here, but I’ve come home. Home is what I write about and who I write about. I live in that imaginary world more than I live in the real world in many ways.
“For me, coming here, it feels like I’m coming home. I look forward to seeing people out and about on the occasions when I can get here.
“These last couple days, I’ve been very moved by what I’ve seen here and by the way people have treated me. It’s been rather overwhelming, to be honest. I can almost get teary about it. I really wasn’t expecting it.
“I felt everybody would forget, it’s been so long ago, or not care because the city’s gone on in so many different ways. It’s like I got a big hug when I walked in. ...
“I think this is the right thing to do. I’m going to see if I can bring some interesting things to this area. I’m going to work on it.
“You’ve certainly done plenty for me, so now it’s my turn.”