IN a crowd of strangers, Patricia Cornwell sees the faces of murderers; in a landscape she sees the scars of past tragedies.
'After you have seen things as I have seen things, you cannot forget them; you cannot feel the same about anything again,' says the 37-year-old award-winning crime thriller writer, author of Post Mortem and Cruel and Unusual and observer of over 500 autopsies.
'When I was a crime reporter in North Carolina, I would drive around on police patrol; I would see murder victims and violence.
'And after a while, the landscape became marked with the scenes where tragedy had occurred - the telephone poles where a drunken driver killed a carload of people, the part of a sidewalk where someone was stabbed to death.' For Cornwell, who has gone from police reporter to computer technician at a medical examiner's office in Virginia to super-successful writer with her Kay Scarpetta series, the evil is still around her. She firmly believes in the violent world she recreates in her fiction which deals with the most brutal of serial murders. 'I don't care how handsome someone is, or how nice they appear, anyone can have dark dangerous thoughts. I think that most people would be surprised.' But she has learnt to live with her dark vision. 'It hasn't made me a worse person, I believe. I love beautiful things and I enjoy goodness when I meet it. Things that I feel are tainted or poisonous I try to get away from as soon as possible,' she says.
She grew up in a single-parent family in a poor neighbourhood in the hills of North Carolina and after six books - five of which were crime thrillers featuring Scarpetta, the fictitious chief medical examiner of Virginia, as the indomitable heroine - she is now a wealthy celebrity.
The Bodyfarm, which has just been released, and her next book, From Potter's Field, now almost finished but not due for publication until next August, have together attracted a reported advance of US$4.5 million from her US publishers.
She has a team of employees doing everything from sorting out her letters to assisting her meticulous research into the latest forensic breakthroughs. And she has a fleet of limousines and front-door keys to houses throughout the world.
Cornwell claims that money has not improved her outlook on the world, it has only made her more cynical. 'If you become 'rich and famous' some people try to use you. They want to steal from you, they become obsessed.' Since she made a name for herself with the early Kay Scarpetta books a few years ago, she says she has had some scary experiences with readers who have wanted to know her in reality as well as they know her imaginary world. They have read about the restaurants and the sports clubs that the fictitious Scarpetta favours and confusing the character with the author they have gone there and tried to bribe staff to give them Cornwell's telephone number.
When unsuccessful, they have waited, sometimes for days, for her to turn up, and have then followed her home, trying to take advantage of the fact that she lives alone.
'I have a safe house behind a large wall, security guards, burglar alarms, and I try to surround myself with good people, but there is always an element that you can't control, and that is where the fear begins,' she says, aware that her books have made her a peculiar kind of target for the pathologically unstable.
As well as attracting obsessed fans and would-be fortune hunters, Cornwell's new-found fame and wealth have also posed problems in other areas. It has been hard to keep her perspective on her own importance and objectives.
'It has been unhealthy for me,' she says. 'I think I am a nicer person now, although it has carried a lot of suffering. At one point, you have to make a decision - are you going to become a spoiled, angry egotistical brat, or are you going to be something better? 'You can look at other people who have become wealthy and see that it has become destructive. If you are looking for friends it is slim pickings when you look at so-called celebrities.
'I got caught up,' she says suddenly, candidly.
'Suddenly going from driving a Honda and living in a small apartment to living in the wealthier suburbs and driving a Mercedes, I sort of re-created myself.
'I turned into someone with lots of houses, lots of limousines . . . people tried to tell me what I should be, what I should wear.' Apart from the fast pace and excitement of her books, much of the wide acclaim for her thriller series has come from the exactitude of her description of forensic science and of the stories that only the corpses can tell.
Her detailed knowledge was gained from six years working in the office of the medical examiner of Virginia, a woman on whom Kay Scarpetta is partly modelled. She made contacts with the FBI which mean that she now has a rare and entirely up-to-date knowledge of their methods and she also gained experience of autopsies that no other crime writer can match.
'In the early days I would go down to the morgue to watch and take notes. Later I would actually help' - she struggles to be delicate - 'I learnt how it felt to have your hands in these things.' The first time Cornwell encountered a corpse in a morgue she says she felt, predictably, weak at the knees. But she dealt with the experience and the ensuing operation by being distant and clinical, by forgetting that this was a human being.
It was several dozen autopsies later that she understood her mistake. 'One time they found a man who had been in the James River for three weeks in the heat of summer. They are called floaters and the smell is unbelievable,' Cornwell recalled.
'As we went down to the morgue, the smell hit us - and I just knew we were in for a bad time. I asked the doctor how she could stand it day after day. She paused and then said she could stand it because she thinks about what he was, not what he is now.
'That sobered me up very quickly. I thought that if I had been in the James River for three weeks, then I would look like that too. But I would really hope that someone would care.' In Scarpetta, she believes she has made a character who does care. Cornwell is not Scarpetta but the two are very similar in many aspects, she admits, speaking of Scarpetta as if she is a living friend. Both are cool, in charge, professional. Scarpetta perhaps has a little more difficulty in expressing her emotions and relating closely to others.
'At first I made her more clinical: I thought she had to be cold and formal in order to be taken seriously and there was a distance between her and me. I would just catch sight of her back as she turned a corner, or see her distant profile as she leaned into a microscope.
'I didn't want her to be too close - or too much like myself. Now she and I are more confident with the world that she occupies and also about revealing her inner life. Maybe I have become less inhibited about my life as well.' The medical examiner is also braver than her creator: in The Bodyfarm, about a little girl who is murdered in a small town in the mountains, Scarpetta is brought in to investigate.
'That town is where I grew up. I made the victim me,' Cornwell says.
'I was the little girl who used to walk home from a church like that, carrying a guitar. I knew that lake and I knew the fear in it.
'There is one scene which is set up a hill, with poor people. I knew these people - I went to school with them and I was scared of them and terrified of Rainbow Mountain.
'Everyone said I should never go there now and when I went I had to have Scarpetta with me.