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The queen of crime

Patricia Cornwell

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PATRICIA CORNWELL: My intuition picks up on a calculating intelligence, an individual with a decided purpose. He's not a novice. We may have discovered how the killer controls his victims. It's possible this attention-seeking psychopath has inadvertently left a peep-hole into his modus operandi. I see what the bastard did.

ROSS COULTHART: What Patricia Cornwell does in her novels is take the tools of crime fighting and place them in the hands of a powerful, thinking female heroine Kay Scarpetta. Patricia's fictional stories inevitably begin with real detective work.

PATRICIA: I love blood spatter because blood screams bright red that somebody did something wrong.

ROSS: Researching blood spatter evidence with crime scene police in Boston.

PATRICIA: Based on the blood pattern, it looks to me like at least three blows were struck.

ROSS: So many of her books have the investigating female turning the tables on a powerful male killer, avenging the victim with science and intuition. Patricia knows what it's like to be powerless. You have been a victim of crime yourself, haven't you?

PATRICIA: I certainly have. By the very early age of, I think I was around five, when I was living in Miami, we had a neighbourhood patrol man. Turned out nobody had checked to see that was a convicted child molester and he began physically molesting me. What I remember about it most vividly is that I felt I had done something wrong. I really fell into the victim's syndrome of not blaming him but blaming myself and then feeling terrible that my mother was so upset.

ROSS: How has that experience coloured the way you write?

PATRICIA: I think that all of my experiences colour the way I write because I have feelings about what I say. I have seen enough dead people, enough suffering, I have been to enough crime scenes, I have been through enough things in my own life that are extremely painful or humiliating or scary that, when I write such things, I infuse my own symphony of emotions into them.

ROSS: Patricia's father left the family when she was a toddler. Her mother was hospitalised with severe depression. And young Patricia and her brother wound up with a cruel foster mother who did her utmost to make their lives a misery.

PATRICIA: I still have a ball of fire of anger about that lady because it's like how do you do this to a 9-year-old child who has just lost her father and her mother? I have a lot of rage about that because it was just unbelievable cruelty and I harness that rage when I kill people in my books. (READS) The body is gracefully posed, draped in white, in a sea of red mud. Her eyes are barely open to the narrowest of slits, as if she's drifting off to sleep. Her pale lips slightly parted, exposing the white edges of her upper teeth.

ROSS: A body in a sports field is how her latest thriller, 'Dust', begins.

PATRICIA: I get down closer to look and I smell the earth and the rain. I detect perfume.

ROSS: Patricia got her taste for writing as a crime reporter and then as a writer and analyst here at the medical examiner's office in Richmond, Virginia.

PATRICIA: I saw thousands of autopsies and hundreds and hundreds of crime scenes and that was my baptism into the evil sadism that people are capable of and it was, you know, something you don't get over.

ROSS: Patricia's books have earned her many millions and the toys that go with it - fast cars, helicopters, private jets. She's just won a $50 million payout in a lawsuit against her former business managers. The money has given Patricia the wherewithal to become a real-life detective and to crack the most famous crime of all. 125 years ago, the killer known as Jack the Ripper stalked these streets in east London, mutilating and murdering at least five women. The killer was never caught or identified.

PATRICIA: These are the original newspapers.

ROSS: Patricia's investigation began with the crime reports stored in the British National Archives and the original newspaper stories detailed the Ripper murders.

PATRICIA: Here is November 10, 1888, another Whitechapel murder and this is a big story about the latest.

ROSS: I love the way they wrote - "During the early hours of yesterday morning, another murder of the most revolting and fiendish character took place in Spitalfields." The suspects were many. A barrister, Montague Druitt. An American, Dr Francis Tumblety, a Russian con man, Michael Ostrog. Even the Queen's grandson, Prince Albert Victor. Is it really the case that you spent $2.5 million of your own money investigating your theory about Jack the Ripper?

PATRICIA: Oh, it was probably closer to at least six.

ROSS: Wow! Really? Patricia looked for clues in the letters Jack the Ripper had sent boasting of his murders.

PATRICIA: The original historic documents were subjected to modern forensic analysis. And the most critical part was looking at the original letters and putting them on a light box, which no-one had ever done before. They had only looked at photographs. You could see the hand of an artist all over these things. Letters that were painted with a paintbrush. A wood cut, someone carving something intricate and stamping it in ink on a letter and the hair began to stand up on the back of my neck.

ROSS: That led Patricia to investigate artists of the time - among them, Walter Sickert, whose paintings had scenes with chilling similarities to Jack the Ripper's murders.

PATRICIA: The necklace is sort of evocative of the cut throat. She's holding something way up in a very odd position. That's her eye. Look at the fear. The fear, the fear. And one of the Rippler letters that he wrote to the police and the media, he says, "What a pretty necklace I gave her."

ROSS: Next, Patricia compared Sickert's handwriting with Jack the Ripper's. While it didn't match, it was probably disguised. What did match was a rare watermark - only 24 sheets of this batch of paper were ever made and it was the same paper used by Sickert and Jack the Ripper. Can I tell you, I wouldn't want, if I was a crim, to have Patricia Cornwell on my tail. Because you really went after this with a passion, didn't you?

PATRICIA: Well, they are real crimes, you know, and his evil influence isn't gone. I mean, Jack the Ripper is like Charles Manson. He still influences people because the Ripper walks and the industry and the people that are still spinning theories and I'm up against an industry. They don't want this case solved. But I am completely confident that Walter Sickert was this killer and it's not a romanticised thing - this was a very damaged, disturbed person.

ROSS: Patricia, you've sold 100 million-plus books worldwide. Why do you think we're drawn to lurid crime?

PATRICIA: I think that we're drawn to crime and we're drawn to death because it's an inevitability. It's something that we all face. No matter what we do, we know that, some day, we're gonna die. At least, we're not gonna exist in the form we're in right now. And, so, we have an intense curiosity about this. I think it really, ironically, it all goes back to our survival instinct as a species that if we can dismantle death, like, if you can figure out what happened in a murder, maybe you can make sure it doesn't happen to you.