8/17/2015 – The Scarpetta House
If you read best-selling author Patricia Cornwell’s forensic mysteries, you are familiar with her fictional character, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, medical examiner in Richmond, Virginia, and her tech-savvy niece Lucy and fellow investigator Pete Marino.
Cornwell sold her first Scarpetta novel, Postmortem, while working as a computer analyst at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond, Virginia. Postmortem would go on to win the Edgar, Creasey, Anthony, and Macavity awards as well as the French Prix du Roman d’Aventure prize – the first book ever to claim all these distinctions in a single year. To date, Cornwell’s books have sold some 100 million copies in 36 languages in over 120 countries. She’s authored 26 New York Times bestsellers.
Being a Cornwell fan, I was thrilled to visit the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for Maryland, tour and program arranged by Sisters in Crime, an association of mystery writers and fans. This state-of-the-art facility is prepared to handle major disasters as well as day-to day operations.
Be glad, very glad, if you live in a state like Maryland or Virginia with an appointed medical examiner who has a medical degree and years of other training for the job. Some states opt for a coroner instead. Coroners are elected, and anyone can run for the office. As a mystery writer, I can imagine all kinds of crimes that could be covered up by an under-educated coroner who does favors, takes bribes, and doesn’t want to spend money from his budget on autopsies.
The distinction between medical examiner and coroner is important and needs to be understood—especially if you’re writing a mystery that calls for one or the other. Which one? However, now I’m reading Kathy Reichs’ Bones Never Lie, which describes a medical examiner who is not an admirable character. People are people.
Back to Maryland. After our host, Bruce Goldfarb, assistant to the Chief Medical Officer, described the duties and functions of the office, he led us on a tour of the facility, which took us to the Scarpetta House.
Patricia Cornwell sometimes uses the Chief Medical Examiner Office for her own research and has donated a room which staff named “The Scarpetta House.” Entering the room is like walking into a full house, with living room, bedroom, kitchen, etc., except that it is set up as a crime scene and used for investigative training. When we walked through, we encountered a bloodied dummy on the couch and two dummies hanging from ropes in the bathroom.
In another room down the hall are a number of dollhouse-sized replicas of actual crime scenes. These exhibits are also used for training.
At the end of the tour, we went to an observation room and watched as several autopsies were performed–actually more hygienic, clinical, and dignified than you’d think. And no smells either since the place is vented to remove them. For the benefit of crime writers reading this, I’ll add that they don’t use toe tags there, they use wrist bands, and they don’t use the “Y” incision but instead remove the entire body block of organs for study.