With 29 New York Times best-selling novels to her credit and having sold more than 100 million books, author Patricia Cornwell has taken her place among the most successful authors of crime fiction in the last three decades. She wrote her first book, “Postmortem” while she was still working as a computer analyst for the office of the Chief Medical Examiner for the city of Richmond, VA. While the book was off to a slow start, it quickly gained momentum and earned the author numerous awards, allowing her to take the plunge into a full-time writing gig. “Postmortem” was also Cornwell’s first novel to feature Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta and she has followed it up with 23 more stories, celebrating 25 years of bringing this character to life. Although Cornwell is best known for her Scarpetta forensic thrillers, she has also written a children’s book, a couple of cookbooks, two biographies, three works of non-fiction on the Jack the Ripper case, and two other crime fiction series. Cornwell is credited with having inspired the wave of popular TV programs with an emphasis on forensics such as “CSI,” “Cold Case,” and “Criminal Minds.”
Patricia Cornwell was born on June 9, 1956 and her parents split up when she was just five years old. Following the breakup of her parents’ marriage, Patricia’s mother moved the family right before being hospitalized for severe depression. During that time, Cornwell and her brothers were under the care of Ruth Bell Graham, wife of evangelist, Billy Graham. It was Ruth Bell Graham who nurtured Cornwell’s’ love of writing and storytelling and the author wrote a biography of her in 1983 that was reissued in 1997. Cornwell herself suffers from bipolar depression and admits to self-medicating with alcohol and struggling to take back control of her life. While many of her critics claim her work is formulaic and repetitive, her fans feel quite the opposite, being fiercely attached to Kay Scarpetta, her family, and her colleagues to the point where they view these characters as worth defending. Scarpetta is not perfect, and her flaws are what make her so appealing to readers. Cornwell is not afraid to dig deep into her character’s psyche, bringing to light issues that are uncomfortable or unattractive, yet still very real. I count myself among her fans as I’ve read every Kay Scarpetta novel and continue to find the stories fascinating. The nice thing about these books is that while reading them in order gives you a true sense of where this character has been and what she’s seen, you can read them as stand-alones as well simply for the pleasure of reading a solid forensic science-based thriller.
“My pipe dream is that someone will notice that one of my sentences is really good.” Patricia Cornwell
So, without further ado, here is my list of must-read books from Patricia Cornwell:
- “Postmortem,” the novel that started them all. Even if you don’t plan to read all 24 of her Kay Scarpetta novels, reading this first one is a must, particularly if you are a fan of forensic science TV programs. Forensics wasn’t nearly as fascinating before Kay Scarpetta, that’s for sure, and in this first novel she is facing off with a serial killer who strangles his victims.
- “The Body Farm” is the fifth book in the series and highlights the procedural aspects of forensics, definitely the author’s strong suit and one which has garnered her followers in the scientific and law enforcement communities. This time around, Scarpetta is called in on a case and ends up at “the body farm,” a place where research pathologists can look at the science behind decomposition.
- By the time “Blow Fly” was published in 2003, Kay Scarpetta had left her position as the Chief Medical Examiner in Virginia for life as a private forensic consultant in Florida. While settling in, she is contacted by a notorious serial killer she helped convict. Much as Clarice Starling did with Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs,” only Scarpetta can get the answers law enforcement needs from this crafty killer. This novel also marks a switch in writing style for Cornwell from first person narrative (always from Scarpetta’s point of view) to third person narrator style where other characters, including the villains, have the chance to present events from their point of view.
- “The Book of the Dead” is the 15th installment in the series and a reference to the morgue ledger where all cases are logged in by hand. For Scarpetta, this log book is filling up quickly as she tries to piece together several different cases that have something very chilling in common.
- “Depraved Heart” was published in 2015 and is an edge-of-your-seat thriller for fans of the series who know these characters by heart. This one is as much about family as it is about forensic science and leaves Scarpetta questioning who she can really trust.
- Cornwell has penned two cookbooks that tie in with her Scarpetta series. In addition to being a forensics expert, Kay Scarpetta is an avid chef and cooking is often her safe haven and her well-stocked kitchen plays a role in all of her books. My favorite of the two cookbooks is 2002’s, “Food To Die For.” Direct references are made back to the novels that featured Kay cooking the delectable dishes from this book including the amazing Jack Daniel’s Chocolate-Pecan Pie that Kay made in “The Body Farm.”
- Patricia Cornwell has written three books to date about Jack the Ripper. The one that started it all is 2002’s, “Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper–Case Closed.” This non-fiction gem highlights just how meticulously researched the author’s novels truly are. She presents all the information available on the Ripper case and then applies modern forensic science and current police procedure to solve the mystery of just who this notorious serial killer really was.