Crime Scene – Forensic Pathology

Ian Fryer takes a look at the Forensic Pathology crime novel, a sub-genre that is not for the faint hearted!

Patricia Cornwell has long been established as the queen of the forensic pathology subgenre of crime fiction.  The pathologist as hero may be the first genre within crime fiction to have been invented by television, with the first popular example being the long-running American series Quincy M.E., which ran from 1976 to 1983, though that series is thought to have been largely inspired by the mid-sixties Canadian crime drama Wojeck.

Cornwell’s heroine Kay Scarpetta popularised the genre in the literary field, cleverly adding a new twist by making her protagonist a woman, thus capitalising on the success of the burgeoning female detective genre (see Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski series for the most successful example). 

So ingrained in the public consciousness is the work of the pathologist and crime scene investigator in crime fiction that many popular series, both on the page and on TV, are either based around their work (Silent Witness, the CSI series) or feature the pathologist as a major supporting character. Phil Hendricks in Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne books is a good example, or ‘Ducky’ Mallard in the long-running NCIS TV series.

Other examples abound and are thought by critics to be better than Cornwell, such as the ongoing Temperance Brennan series by Kathy Reichs, the basis of the TV series Bones.

Tess Gerritsen, who has a B.A. in Anthropology and is also a medical doctor, uses this background in a slightly different manner with her homicide detective hero Jane Rizzoli, who rose from being a secondary character in The Surgeon to being the central character in six more books.

The Lincoln Rhyme series of novels of Jeffery Deaver offer a clever variation on this sub-genre. The brilliant Rhyme is quadriplegic, so has to solve crimes by the power of his intellect with others going the legwork, most notably his assistant Amelia Sachs.

Also worth investigating are Val McDermid’s Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series, from which came the TV series Wire in the Blood.  While retaining the general aura of blood and menace, these involve a brilliant psychologist who aids police murder investigations, replacing a study of the body with that of the brain.  It helps a lot that McDermid is a terrific writer.

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