When best-selling crime writer and Boston resident Patricia Cornwell found some down time in the book-tour schedule this fall for “Bone Bed,” her newest installment in the Kay Scarpetta series, she turned her attention back to a real crime that has obsessed her for years.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
CORNWELL: I’m reading a lot of nonfiction, such as police reports, inquests, and historical documents from the 19th century because I’m in the midst of revising my book, “Jack the Ripper — Case Closed.”
BOOKS: What do police reports from that era read like?
CORNWELL: First of all you are continually surprised by how literate a lot of the police officers were. Their spelling was excellent and so was their handwriting. What is really interesting about the police reports from then, in a bad way, is that they were so dependent on witnesses because there was no forensic science. But the eyewitness accounts make them amazingly fun to read.
BOOKS: Anything else you’ve read for that research that you’d recommend?
CORNWELL: I read a lot of the things that I thought Jack the Ripper, who I believe was the artist Walter Sickert, was reading. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” had just opened up in a London theater when the Ripper struck so I got a first edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel. I really loved it.
BOOKS: What kind of books do you gravitate toward?
CORNWELL: I love to read beautifully crafted novels and writing such as Philipp Meyer’s “American Rust.” I also read a lot of nonfiction. I loved Stacy Schiff’s “Cleopatra.” It’s a great story and a great history of the ancient world. Another one of my all-time favorites is “Man Hunt” by James Swanson. It’s about the hunt for John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Lincoln. The detail is unbelievable. I also enjoyed “Hemingway’s Boat” by Paul Hendrickson. It’s a biographical study of Hemingway through his boat. I’m incredibly intrigued by Hemingway. He can create so much with so few words. I keep a whole shelf of his work in my office. When I really get stuck with my own work I pull down something like “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and savor it a little bit.
BOOKS: Did you get turned on to him when you were an English major?
CORNWELL: Nope, I’m one of those students who read the classics in college, but I didn’t pay any attention to them.
BOOKS: Did any books strike you then?
CORNWELL: Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” I was amazed at the metaphors in that book. It was almost like there was a whole secret language. I read a lot of poetry then too, and I still do. My favorite poet is T.S. Eliot. “The Waste Land” is one of the most remarkable things ever written.
BOOKS: Which crime writers do you like reading?
CORNWELL: None really, but there are crime books I like. I think “Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris continues to be one of the best crime novels ever. I couldn’t put it down, which isn’t true for me with of a lot of crime fiction. When I decided to write crime novels in 1983 I’d never read a murder mystery. So I went to a secondhand bookstore and bought one book by Dorothy Sayers, one by P.D. James, and one by Agatha Christie. Christie is the greatest puzzle writer of all time but I can’t get into that.
BOOKS: Do you have any thing on your bookshelf that would surprise someone?
CORNWELL: Probably. I have a pile right here with Marcella Hazan’s “Marcella Cucina,” an Italian cookbook, atop of “The Essentials of Forensic Imaging” by Angela D. Levy and H. Theodore Harcke Jr., which has some gory pictures. Right next to that I have Hemingway’s “Garden of Eden” and under that is a cadaver dog handbook.