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'Autopsy': Lockdown inspired Patricia Cornwell to bring back Kay Scarpetta

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'Autopsy': Lockdown inspired Patricia Cornwell to bring back Kay Scarpetta
Patricia Cornwell's 25th Kay Scarpetta book, "Autopsy," is now on sale. Photo by Patrick Ecclesine

NEW YORK, Dec. 9 (UPI) -- Bestselling author Patricia Cornwell says she expected 2016's Chaos to be her last Kay Scarpetta crime novel.

But the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with her evolving interest in space and technology, led her to write Autopsy, her 25th book about the brilliant, crime-solving medical examiner, which is on sale now.

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"I quit Scarpetta five years ago. I said, 'I'm not doing any more of these.' I had nothing really more to say," Cornwell told UPI in a recent phone interview. "After 24 of them, I felt it was time."

During her break from Scarpetta, Cornwell updated her non-fiction book, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed, and penned the space thrillers, Quantum and Spin.

The pandemic began just before Spin was released and Cornwell went on her first virtual book tour to promote it.

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Like many, the author became more introspective during the months of uncertainty, which were filled with lockdowns, travel restrictions and quarantines.

"All these people are dying," she recalled, "and there is no vaccine yet and then we had Jan. 6 and civil unrest in this country and I started thinking: 'What is the planet coming to? What do I want to do going forward and who am I in this messy stew?'"

"And, furthermore, I wonder what Scarpetta would do if she was here today?"

Cornwell said all of this was the perfect storm for relaunching the series.

"It felt like a natural thing for me to go back to that and then, meanwhile, I had learned so many things that I was able to tell a different type of story without repeating things," she noted. "It gave me a new fuel-load."

The author said she didn't know if she would be able to write for her most famous literary character again after such a long break.

"In the very beginning, I wasn't really sure how it was going to go, was she going to talk to me or not? Did she want to come back?" Cornwell said. "Are there stories that we can tell? I was very pleased as we started getting into it, that she started really springing to life."

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The key was bringing to Scarpetta's world the knowledge Cornwell recently acquired about aerospace, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

Autopsy follows the forensic pathologist as she tries to catch a serial killer in a posh Virginia neighborhood AND remotely work a crime scene at a top-secret lab in outer space.

"Science is science and I can do anything with it. You can do any kind of crime," Cornwell said.

"What happens if someone dies in outer space? What if there is an attack in outer space? What are we using artificial intelligence for? What happens if we get to a point where I can't tell if that's an avatar I'm talking to on my Zoom screen or a real person?"

The novelist is known for her meticulous research, which lends an air of authenticity to her work, whether she is detailing mind-mending advances in technology, government machinations, medical procedures or law-enforcement investigation techniques.

Cornwell insisted she never wishes she could unknow something disturbing she has learned because it is part of real life. That said, there are some things that are so awful she would never share them with others.

"If somebody has died in a way that is so horrific that I don't even want to talk about it with you, I'm glad I know about it, at least, because it makes that person less alone in their death," she said. "Someone should know all of the nuances of what they went through."

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What she has learned about space and all that might lie beyond our detection at this point isn't scary to Cornwell, either.

"It actually gives me hope because I like to believe that reality as we understand it is not all there is," she said.

"Some people would say that is what religion is all about. Well, whatever you want to call it, I love the idea of embracing a higher power. I believe that there is one and I believe that is why we are here."

Cornwell feels a tremendous responsibility to the readers who have connected to her characters and supported the Scarpetta series for more than three decades.

"When people read a book, their thoughts and the way they perceive it, is their creation of that story and what I don't want to do is create characters that people come to love and identify with and do things with them that someone goes: 'Uh-oh! Now I don't like this person anymore! Why did you do that?'"

The writer gave as an example the unpopular creative decision she made to kill off Scarpetta's husband Benton Wesley.

"Nobody liked that Point of Origin. I didn't like that either," Cornwell said.

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"Instantly, Scarpetta was so lonely. I didn't know what to do with her. I said, 'This lady is never going to get over this.' Then someone said at a book signing, 'Are you sure Benton Wesley is dead?" And I said: 'You know, I wasn't there when it happened. Now that you mention it, he might not be.'"

Benton is alive and well in Autopsy, a story that also reunites Scarpetta with her tech genius niece Lucy and Scarpetta's gruff but loyal death investigator, Pete Marino.

"They are very harmonious," Cornwell said. "They have their idiosyncrasies. They have their secrets. There is a wonderful camaraderie with these folks that will resonate with people. There is a feeling of being in a small town, even though they are right outside of Washington, D.C."

The Scarpetta books are also known for juxtaposing gruesome morgue and crime scenes with vivid depictions of the main character's beautiful home, gourmet cooking and warm family get-togethers.

Cornwell likens the novels to "comfort food" and hopes Autopsy will ultimately entertain and satisfy the series' fans.

"I want to thrill you and excite you and show you what's going on out there," she said. "I call it from 'space to ground to six feet under' because wherever humans go, they carry everything and, when they do, then Scarpetta has to be around."

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Almost since the series began, filmmakers and TV producers have wanted to adapt them for the screen. It looks like that dream will finally come to fruition now that it has the backing of Jamie Lee Curtis and Jason Blum of Blumhouse, who previously collaborated on the Halloween film franchise.

"If you put a mathematical formula of Jamie Lee Curtis + Halloween + Scarpetta, I have a feeling this TV series is going to be spooky, scary fun," Cornwell said.

She doesn't want to write the adaptation herself because it requires a skill set she doesn't think she has. Besides, she trusts that Scarpetta is in good hands with Curtis and Blum.

"As long as the DNA stays intact, there is a lot of room for creative freedom because I would hope these characters do all kinds of things when I'm not looking," she said.

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