The success of Patricia Cornwell's novel Cause of Death as a bestseller can be attributed to many different reasons. Cornwell's talent as a writer may be one of these reasons, but for the most part Cause of Death's success is due to a formulaic assembly of the book as a whole. This novel teaches the audience of contemporary writing that bestsellers can be contrived and manufactured. The novel's definitive location within time and space, place as a "follow-on" bestseller and the classic characterizations used by Cornwell all conspire to form the contemporary bestseller.
The believability of time and space by the reader is important to the success of the novel. This is especially true for books like Cause of Death that belong to the genre of suspense and mystery. The "hook" of suspense thrillers is that their details must be believable in order to captivate the reader. Cornwell achieves this effect by creating descr9iptions of space that submerges the reader into the setting of the story. The descriptions of location are so detailed and true to life that a reader could almost map out the entire novel. Cornwell chooses to set this novel and many others in an area that she is very familiar with. She has made Virginia, Richmond in particular, her home for the majority of her life and career. Cornwell's descriptions cover the streets of downtown Richmond, the Medical College of Virginia campus, the Tidewater area, and the University of Virginia. Because she still resides in this area, it was not difficult for her to research the setting of Cause of Death. As we follow the heroine, Kay Scarpetta, throughout her travels first in Hampton to discover the mysterious drowning death of Ted Eddings to the grounds at UVA, we find that Cornwell's descriptions are so incredibly detailed that they can be traced. "We drove east along Monument Avenue into the district known as the Fan, where gracious mansions lined historic avenues and college students crowded old homes. At the statue of Robert E. Lee, he cut over to Grace Street" (95). The realism of Cornwell's descriptions blurs the line between the real and the unreal. The reader forgets that Kay Scarpetta as well as her home and life are fictional because Cornwell's description of her neighborhood, Windsor Farms, is so real.
Cornwell's descriptions are not only incredibly detailed, but historically correct, also. "'The biggest battle on or near water in your area was between the Merrimac and the Monitor. And that was miles away in Hampton Roads. I have never heard of any battles in or near the part of the Elizabeth River where the Shipyard is located'" (140). In this scene, Scarpetta is challenging the idea that Eddings' death was accidental and he was simply diving for Civil War relics in the Navy Shipyard. The historical context in which Cornwell presents the story adds to the realism of her location choices and descriptions.
As far as Cornwell's choice of time period and time descriptions, the novel acts as a log of all the events of the story. Cause of Death not only occupies a particular place in time and namely New Year's Eve, 1996 and the following month or so after it, but also follows a realistic timeline in regards to time of day, travel time, and the like, that can be sketched out. There are constant references to the time of day, day or night, and precise times as in A.M. or P.M. "Danny's case number was ME-3096, which meant he was the thirtieth case of the new year in the central district of Virginia" (177). Cornwell uses simple clues like this to indicate the present year.
Cornwell also uses simple clues to indicate a more general time period in which the action of the novel is taking place. She references the United States Attorney General, Gradecki, in one instance and the movie, Shadowlands, with Anthony Hopkins in another (73 & 229). These are vague indications of a wide time period in which the novel is set. In the same way that the mixture of real and fictitious locations acts as a means of making every aspect of the story seem real, mixing historical times and events with fictitious times and events creates the same effect.
Another crucial element to the success of Cause of Death as a bestseller is its place within the Kay Scarpetta series. As a "follow-on" bestseller, readers who have been introduced to this series before have come to know and love (or hate) its characters. Although this is a series of sequels and prequels, there is not a continuing main plot that follows throughout the series. Instead, secondary plots between characters and events are carried throughout. Kay Scarpetta's affair and relationship with FBI agent Benton Wesley is one of these sustaining plots.
"'I know how I feel about you, ' Wesley was saying. 'I have known that for a long time.'
'You have no right,' I said. 'You have never had a right.'
'And what about you? Did you have a right to do what you did, Kay? Or was I the only one in the room?'"
This is a reference to the ongoing sexual relationship between Scarpetta and Wesley. One might think that they are talking about an event that has occurred in this novel, but this is only the second instance of them speaking in this particular story. Following the romantic life of Scarpetta gives the series some consistency.
Kay's niece Lucy is another recurring character that Cornwell's readership has formed a relationship with. Not only do Kay and Lucy have a dynamic familial and professional relationship, but also Lucy's sexuality is reckoned with in each novel. "I never knew quite what to do when we had these conversations. They were all new to me, and in some ways scary" (61). Cornwell's readers are able empathize with Scarpetta as she struggles to understand Lucy's homosexuality.
Lucy's bout with alcoholism is another resurfacing theme. In Cause of Death, Lucy goes on a several-day binge while she is fighting with her girlfriend, Janet. "She did not answer and I was grateful that our cars had not arrived. I was afraid she was about to repeat every terrible mistake she had ever made" (145). This is one of several references to a car accident that Lucy was involved in a while ago that involved alcohol. These references would help rekindle the old, good feelings readers had had about past Cornwell novels.
Scarpetta's past work experiences also find a way of resurfacing within this novel. As Chief Medical Examiner of the State of Virginia, Scarpetta's job can be on the unpleasant side sometimes. "This was not the first time I had autopsied people I knew, and most police and even the other doctors did not always understand" (176). Nearly all the Scarpetta books involve a case in which someone she knows is killed. In this book, Danny her temporary assistant and Ted Eddings, a reporter she had come to know, both are killed by unnatural causes. This brings Kay's humanity into light. She is able to be both professional while still mourning the loss of those people in her life.
Cornwell's characterization choices with Kay Scarpetta are perhaps the most compelling reason for the success of the bestseller. Scarpetta contains the key elements of a heroine that would make her a success with the majority of readers. Strong, intelligent, savvy, but also emotionally vulnerable, Scarpetta is a multi-faceted woman. In fact, she retains both masculine and feminine traits that make her a perfect heroine for either sex. Scarpetta balances a challenging career as a medical examiner with legal credentials while maintaining a complicated romantic relationship with a married man. She is strong in the face of death, but the first person of the novel lets the reader see and hear the fears of Scarpetta. She is an archetype of the contemporary heroine.
Scarpetta's battle against male dominance is one factor that causes her to succeed as a key character with contemporary women. "You don't even know what discrimination is until you're one of only three women in your medical school class. Or in law school, the men won't share their notes if you're sick and miss class" (147). Kay's interactions with Detective Roche and Captain Greene in Hampton were classic examples of her hassles as a female in an all male industry.
Scarpetta's character is also a relatable character because she is dealing with many personal struggles. The concept of "getting old" is a major theme with Kay in this novel. She begins to notice just how young and fit her niece is. Lucy seems to be an extension of Kay and to see such a difference between them is unsettling to Kay. Although Kay worries that Lucy is overdoing it, she still shows signs of envy in her younger, healthier counterpart.
Cornwell devotes an entire chapter to Scarpetta's reevaluation of faith and religion. The subject of faith, especially Christianity, has mass appeal as far as readership empathy. "It had been a while since I had stopped at church on my way home, for I thought to do this only when life had pushed me as far as I could go" (142). This subject also relates to both male and female readers of all ages.
This characterization, along with Cause of Death's place as a "follow-on" bestseller and definitive time and location all add up to equal the winning formula for the modern mystery bestseller. Even if one is not dazzled by Cornwell's talent, it is hard to argue with a recipe that has been used by many different authors to much success. That is not to take away from a writer's talents, but the genre of the bestseller is simply one that can be carefully engineered.