Patricia Cornwell: Where do the moral boundaries lie

Patricia Cornwell discusses the moral quandaries of carrying out research in morgues, muses on the possibility of writerly camaraderie in a social media age and explains why she will never let Kay Scarpetta take advantage of others.

Patricia Cornwell is an internationally best-selling, multi-award-winning American writer, most famous for her novels about forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta. The 21st book in the series, Dust, is out now.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

With this frightening true story of a quadruple murder, written as a novel, Capote bridged the gap between journalism and fiction and changed crime writing forever. It’s packed full of facts, but you also feel the emotional journey Capote went through—he spent a lot of time with the story’s two killers and ultimately witnessed their hangings.

Like him, I do a lot of research in morgues and labs, and observe the aftermaths of many tragedies. I try to be an appropriate steward of the information and also deal with my principles. I couldn’t make Scarpetta compelling if I didn’t understand what she feels, but sometimes I have to ask, “Is it really OK to be part of this situation? Where do the moral boundaries lie?”

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Writers tend to be quite isolated. We don’t have much camaraderie with each other and miss out on a great gift of life—comparing notes on the frustrations and joys of our chosen career. In Hemingway’s memoir, you get a sense of his life among extraordinary writers such as F Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein in 1920s Paris. I’d love to have that rapport with colleagues and I’m hoping that, with the social technology that we have today, we may start to exchange our views more freely.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Beecher Stowe is an ancestor of mine and was part of my childhood lore. As a young girl, I was struck by the vivid portrayal of cruelty in this book—yet what she wrote about 160 years ago is really no different from what I write about now. Whether you enslave people and mistreat them, harass your secretary or commit murder, it’s abuse of power.

I’m mindful of this in my Scarpetta books, because it’s the one thing I’ll never let Kay do—or she’d be no better than anyone else. If we all tried harder not to take advantage of others, the world would be a better place.