“My special sauce is to make things a little creepy. If you don’t want to be creeped out, don’t read me because I’m going to be doing something creepy somewhere.”
Patricia Cornwell transformed the mystery genre with her Kay Scarpetta series, which made its debut in 1990 with Postmortem and set off a frenzy of enthusiasm for learning the details of forensics. Since then, she’s sold some 100 million books.
After working as a journalist, Cornwell had taken a job at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia, and the knowledge she gained was put to great use in the creation of Scarpetta, the brilliant blonde Chief Medical Examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia at Richmond.
When the novel begins, Chase is investigating a tripped alarm in the tunnels below a NASA research center in Virginia. Outside, a blizzard is bearing down and a government shutdown looms. Inside the tunnel, Chase is busy dealing with the complaints of a claustrophobic colleague when she discovers a spatter of dried blood where no one should have been.
A missing security badge and a highly suspicious suicide complicate Chase’s investigation. When she and a forensic team are going over the home of the suicide victim, it soon becomes clear that malevolent forces are at work. This crime scene yields some of the tensest, most shocking moments of the novel, a reader reaction that pleases Cornwell no end.
As Chase realizes that the dead woman, an outside contractor, may hold the key to strange events happening all over the base, her own family bonds tighten. She lives near her parents, both of whom have ties to NASA, in a small town, and is alarmed to hear from her mother, recovering from cancer, that her father was taken away from the house by men in an official car. But most ominous of all, her missing twin sister, Carme, is arousing suspicion in high places, just as Calli gets in contact with her sibling in the most unexpected way.
In a comprehensive Q&A, Cornwell said she spent two years researching Quantum, talking to Secret Service agents and NASA investigators, learning about robotics, cybersecurity, and the latest technology used at NASA’s Langley Research Center.
What drew you to the cyberworld for this new series?
I find this invisible world so interesting. And I always say it’s the stuff you don’t see that will get you. Back in the 1600s, Robert Hooke wrote the book Micrographia. He saw what a flea looked like under a microscope, and then he drew it and to everyone it looked like something from outer space. It created a panic. They’d been living with fleas forever, but now they saw one for real. In the forensic world, just because you don’t see a fingerprint or see DNA, it doesn’t mean it’s not there–it might climb through your window and it might send you to jail.
These transmissions, this electro-magnetic energy, are all around us if you could throw a switch and see it. That’s what I want to do with Captain Chase. Put a face on all of this, just as I did with the forensic world. Readers hadn’t heard about DNA either and now they know you can use lasers in a morgue. Now I’m hoping Captain Chase will do that with the cyber world and all the technologies that go along with it.
I think what I did with the Scarpetta novels is I made that invisible world accessible to readers and to Hollywood and to other entertainers. People fell in love with that. Now with another character, we have a chance to put a face on something that’s really complicated and abstract but is really neat to know about.
When did you become aware of this cyber world and how vulnerable we all are to it?
I’ve always known from my being with regular law enforcement about the concerns with hacking. But then somebody in London asked me about a female James Bond and why didn’t I do something like that, and I thought, maybe I will. Then I thought who would that be, and I decided to start with NASA.
I didn’t think about the cyber stuff until I was at NASA and walking around with one of their top cyber people and he was holding a spectrum analyzer like Ghostbusters, and we’d be riding around with antennas, and he took me up to a rooftop and showed me the dish antennae up there that’s used to track radio waves from the sun.
The cyberworld is where it’s at, and we better be paying attention to it, because it will have its way. And if the wrong people use it against us, we are no match for someone who turns out our lights.
How well prepared are we as a society for cyber threats?
I don’t think we’re prepared at all, no one is. The technology is sometimes outrunning our ability to keep up with it. With quantum computing on the horizon and artificial intelligence, we should be putting a lot of resources into this. We better hope we don’t imprint a lot of bad stuff on it that turns back on us and causes a lot of trouble. We need to pay attention to this, but what we really have to do is tell a good story, because if we don’t, people’s eyes glaze over.
How did you build a character to move through this world?
The first thing I have to do is meet real people who do these real jobs. Now I know NASA protective services people, I know astronauts, I know cyber-experts. I know Secret Service people. And they become like the parents of the character. She has a little bit of the DNA of each of them. And then the character starts evolving. I’m still getting to know her. She changes in front of me every day as I’m working on the second book.
The kindle book, published by Thomas & Mercer, has an animated cover and scenes from the book, often showing the character’s perspective of driving at night as the storm approaches. What made you want to include these innovations?
That’s the spooky little artist in me, the child. When I used to write stories as a little kid, I loved the phrase “All of a sudden.” Every other paragraph: “All of a sudden…” You’d have the rain coming down, and the wind is blowing, and the leaves are skittering across the pavement.
As a writer, we use nature, and things happening around us to create a mood. It’s another vehicle to pull the reader into the experience that the character’s having right then.
How do you feel about the shift in antagonist type from the Scarpetta books to this new series?
Yes, we’re not talking about serial killers, we’re talking about moguls, these people who own countries practically, tech billionaires. This is a different kind of enemy to fear, and not the kind you neatly dispatch at the end of every book like in the Scarpetta series.
What are your plans for Kay Scarpetta?
She’s not gone. She hasn’t been sighted in three years. She’s like, “You’ve killed me, injured me, killed my husband, brought him back, you have done so many crappy things to me over the years, I’d really just like to have a break please.” She is far from done. I just saw her and she says hello.
How do you feel about the people who don’t want to wait a year for the next book in the series?
I love those people. I can’t wait for it either. The next book picks up right where this one let off. I can tell you you’re going to be rather shocked. It’s not going to be anything that anyone expects.
Quantum is now available for purchase.
About Patricia Cornwell
Patricia Cornwell is an American crime writer. She is known for her best-selling novels featuring medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, of which the first was inspired by a series of sensational murders in Richmond, Virginia, where most of the stories are set.