Medical examiners were not sexy, crime-solving heroes when Patricia Cornwell wrote her first Kay Scarpetta mystery 22 years ago.
With the publication of the 20th book featuring the pasta-cooking, sharp-dressing forensic scientist, there is an entire industry of sexy medical examiners on TV, and Cornwell accepts responsibility.
"I think you can blame Scarpetta. She opened the gate that made it accessible," Cornwell said.
The books, with their grisly autopsies and violent perpetrators, have also made Cornwell a millionaire. Her latest, The Bone Bed (Putnam, $28.95), features a familiar cast of characters: Scarpetta, her husband FBI agent Benton, her billionaire computer-savvy niece Lucy, lunkish homicide detective Marino, and an appropriately deranged serial killer.
It's as heavily plotted as any Cornwell novel, with a dead dinosaur hunter in Alberta, a murder trial in Boston, a body that floats out of the ocean entangled with a leatherback turtle, and unfinished drama between Scarpetta and the men in her life.
"I don't seem to be capable of writing a book that's not complex," said Cornwell, speaking from a book-tour stop in California. Along with the violence and heavy breathing, the novel offers a heavy dose of science: Forensics, paleontology, marine biology and information technology all vie for attention. Interestingly, Cornwell, 56, was not a science whiz at Davidson College, and once inadvertently set her lab on fire.
On the other hand, Cornwell worked for six years in the office of the chief medical examiner in Virginia, absorbing a grounding in Scarpetta's skills.
The title of her novel refers to an actual dig in Alberta, Canada, where herds of prehistoric creatures died all at once, leaving a uniquely crowded deposit of fossil remains. Cornwell participated in a dig at the site in the rainy summer of 2011.
Similarly, back in her hometown of Boston she found a way to get hands-on experience with a leatherback turtle for other sections of the book. "I got to touch one, smell one," she said. "When I have Scarpetta go in the water or remove a barnacle from its shell, I want you to be right there with me."
Cornwell has written novels with other protagonists, and has a long fascination with Jack the Ripper, writing an analysis in 2002, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed, offering evidence that the identity of the 19th-century British serial killer was artist Walter Sickert.
While other "Ripperologists" disputed that, Cornwell says that Sickert's letters bolster her theory, and that she's working on a revised version of the treatise for publication next year.