Magazine article The New Yorker

Field Trip

Magazine article The New Yorker

Field Trip

Article excerpt

When Patricia Cornwell wrote her first forensic thriller, in 1990, the amount of evidence required for DNA identification was a drop of blood. Twenty-three years and a twenty-book series later, analysts can make a match using just six skin cells. Not long ago, while celebrating the release of her latest book, "The Bone Bed," Cornwell dropped by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City, where she often goes to stay up to date.

In a tidy office on the ground floor of the building, Cornwell, who is fifty-six and trim and wore a suede jacket and cowboy boots, found her friend Barbara Butcher, the chief of staff at the O.C.M.E., who inspires and informs Cornwell's novels. Butcher, a wry sixtyish woman in a power suit, recalled how she met Cornwell, in 2008.

"She came to me and begged," Butcher said.

"I begged and begged you to let me do a photo shoot in the morgue," Cornwell added. Butcher eventually agreed, and Cornwell was photographed for a book jacket standing beside a metal table in the basement morgue. In exchange, Butcher received a white lab coat embroidered with the name of Cornwell's protagonist, the medical examiner Kay Scarpetta. Ever since then, Cornwell has donated money to support the O.C.M.E.'s forensic-science training program and has made regular visits from Boston, where she lives.

Butcher explained how a body can end up at the medical examiner's office. "Let's say a person went to New York, had no I.D., fell, and died," Butcher said. Or the person was a victim of a crime. The staff uses anthropology, pathology, DNA analysis, fingerprints, and dental records to find out the person's identity and how he or she died. In all, some fifty-five hundred bodies are examined every year.

Butcher led Cornwell to the third floor, where four unidentified skeletons were being studied in the forensic-anthropology lab. The bones were arranged on tables draped with black cloth. Cornwell gestured toward a slender scapula bone and asked, "Is this an older person, based on the thinning?"

Bradley Adams, the head of the lab, nodded, and showed her a skull that had a round hole in the forehead and a splintered mass of bone in the back.

"It looks like an entry-exit wound," Cornwell said.

"Exactly," Adams said. "But, once you clean it up, you can see the edges are smooth. This is actually a surgical intervention, where you had a shunt in his head to relieve pressure."

"It would be easy to misinterpret," Cornwell said, and she seemed to make a mental note. Then she pointed to the small square cushion that supported the skull. …

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