Patricia Cornwell takes her research — and privacy — very seriously

Patricia Cornwell’s office on the Boston waterfront is filled with items from her research on Jack the Ripper and other cases.
Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe
Patricia Cornwell’s office on the Boston waterfront is filled with items from her research on Jack the Ripper and other cases.
Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe
A bound collection of the London Times, from 1888 through 1892.

Patricia Cornwell, who has sold at least 100 million books, has to be one of the best-selling crime writers alive. She also may have solved the mystery of Jack the Ripper, a theory she details in her 2002 book, “Portrait of a Killer.” It’s absolutely certain that her series of novels starring Dr. Kay Scarpetta, forensic examiner extraordinaire, have entertained millions of readers worldwide. Cornwell lives on the Boston waterfront and writes in an office nearby overlooking the harbor, filled with helicopter models, vintage medical equipment, and deadly knives.

ROAD SHOW: I travel a lot, and I do a book a year, so I have to be portable. I write a lot in hotel rooms. I have certain places I stay in almost every city, almost always on the ocean. I make sure that they rearrange the room so that there’s a writing space in front of the doors looking out on the ocean. In some cities, I have friends who have computers for me. When they know I’m coming, they check me in, move the desk, and put my computer on it. I can’t write books on a laptop. I’ve tried, but I need to see the entire page I’m working on.

GETTING THE WORM: On a perfect day, whether it’s here or someplace else . . . I’m up really early. Ideally, I’m at my desk by 5 or 6 in the morning. I try very hard not to give away my time early in the day. If I get distracted, clutter starts entering my head, and by the time it’s noon or 1 o’clock, I can’t think anymore, and Scarpetta’s like, “You didn’t show up — I’m out of here!”

Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe
Cornwell’s knife from her collection of weapons from the Victorian era.


FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE: I need my privacy. I can’t have someone showing up with the dog or putting groceries in the house with the housekeeper. Nobody can come around when I’m working — it’s like going through the looking glass into my own space.

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KNOWING JACK: A lot of what’s [in my office] is from my Jack the Ripper research: Victorian-era swords, which were used as riot weapons . . . maps of London from 1888, which as far as we know was the year Jack the Ripper began to commit murder, a picture of Sir Charles Warren, who was the commissioner of Scotland Yard during the Jack the Ripper investigation. I did a lot of experimenting with what kind of knife the Ripper must have used, so I bought a lot of knives that would have been available to somebody [then].

VINTAGE CRIME: I have some unusual things like that that I’ve found over the years, like an autopsy kit made of beautiful German steel, made in the late 1800s. [I have] a wooden box with all sorts of different gun powders. It’s the research kit of the guy who was the lead investigator on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre — it was his personal case that he actually used in the trial.

Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe
Gunshot powders from the 1920's.

THINK “CSI’’: Some of [my things] are modern research materials that Scarpetta would use . . . There’s a microscope that I feed through my computer; I have a forensic light source so I can see what might fluoresce with certain bandwidths, like bite marks and body fluids. I once bit a raw chicken and washed my mouth out with soap right afterward.

BEARING WITNESS: The original Greek etymology of the world “autopsy” is “autopsia,” which means “to see for yourself.” That’s the whole key to Scarpetta — she sees things for herself. As much as possible, I try to do the same thing. Much of my research is with professionals — going to autopsies, going to labs, riding around with police. There’s nothing like just being there.

Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached eugenia.williamson