The Suspicious Figure of the Female Forensic Pathologist Investigator in Crime Fiction




female forensic pathologist, crime fiction, abject, Cornwell, Gerritsen, suspicion, corpse

How to Cite

Howell, K. (2011). The Suspicious Figure of the Female Forensic Pathologist Investigator in Crime Fiction. M/C Journal, 15(1).
Vol. 15 No. 1 (2012): suspicion
Published 2011-12-20

Over the last two decades the female forensic pathologist investigator has become a prominent figure in crime fiction. Her presence causes suspicion on a number of levels in the narrative and this article will examine the reasons for that suspicion and the manner in which it is presented in two texts: Patricia Cornwell’s Postmortem and Tess Gerritsen’s The Sinner. Cornwell and Gerritsen are North American crime writers whose series of novels both feature female forensic pathologists who are deeply involved in homicide investigation. Cornwell’s protagonist is Dr Kay Scarpetta, then-Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond, Virginia. Gerritsen’s is Dr Maura Isles, a forensic pathologist in the Boston Medical Examiner’s office. Their jobs entail attending crime scenes to assess bodies in situ, performing examinations and autopsies, and working with police to solve the cases.

In this article I will first examine Western cultural attitudes towards dissection and autopsy since the twelfth century before discussing how the most recent of these provoke suspicion in the selected novels. I will further analyse this by drawing on Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject. I will then consider how female pathologist protagonists try to deflect their colleagues’ suspicion of their professional choices, drawing in part on Judith Butler’s ideas of gender as a performative category. I define ‘gender’ as the socially constructed roles, activities, attributes, and behaviours that Western culture considers appropriate for women and men, and ‘sex’ as the physical biological characteristics that differentiate women and men. I argue that the female forensic pathologist investigator is portrayed as suspicious in the chosen novels for her occupation of the abject space caused by her sex in her roles as investigator and pathologist, her identification with the dead, and her performance of elements of both masculine and feminine conventional gender roles. Scholars such as Barthes, Rolls, and Grauby have approached detective fiction by focusing on intertextuality, the openness of the text, and the possibility of different meanings, with Vargas being one example of how this can operate; however, this article focuses on examining how the female forensic pathologist investigator is represented as suspicious in mainstream crime novels that attract a readership seeking resolution and closure.

A significant part of each of these novels focuses on the corpse and its injuries as the site at which the search for truth commences, and I argue that the corpse itself, those who work most closely with it and the procedures they employ in this search are all treated with suspicion in the crime fiction in this study. The central procedures of autopsy and dissection have historically been seen as abominations, in some part due to religious views such as the belief of Christians prior to the thirteenth century that the resurrection of the soul required an intact body (Klaver 10) and the Jewish and Muslim edicts against disfigurement of the dead (Davis and Peterson 1042). In later centuries dissection was made part of the death sentence and was perceived “as an abhorrent additional post-mortem punishment” that “promised the exposure of nakedness, dismemberment, and the deliberate destruction of the corpse,” which was considered “a gross assault on the integrity and the identity of the body, and upon the repose of the soul” (Richardson 154). While now a mainstay of many popular crime narratives, the autopsy as a procedure in real life continues to appall much of the public (Klaver 18). This is because “the human body—especially the dead human body—is an object still surrounded by taboos and prohibitions” (Sawday 269). The living are also reluctant to “yield the subjecthood of the other-dead to object status” (Klaver 18), which often produces a horrified response from some families to doctors seeking permission to dissect for autopsy. According to Gawande, when doctors suggest an autopsy the victim’s family commonly asks “Hasn’t she been through enough?” (187). The forensic pathologists who perform the autopsy are themselves linked with the repugnance of the act (Klaver 9), and in these novels that fact combined with the characters’ willingness to be in close proximity with the corpse and their comfort with dissecting it produces considerable suspicion on the part of their police colleagues.

The female sex of the pathologists in these novels causes additional suspicion. This is primarily because women are “culturally associated [...] with life and life giving” (Vanacker 66). While historically women were also involved in the care of the sick and the dead (Nunn and Biressi 200), the growth of medical knowledge and the subsequent medicalisation of death in Western culture over the past two centuries has seen women relegated to a stylised kind of “angelic ministry” (Nunn and Biressi 201). This is an image inconsistent with these female characters’ performance of what is perceived as a “violent ‘reduction’ into parts: a brutal dismemberment” (Sawday 1). Drawing on Butler’s ideas about gender as a culturally constructed performance, we can see that while these characters are biologically female, in carrying out tasks that are perceived as masculine they are not performing their traditional gender roles and are thus regarded with suspicion by their police colleagues. Both Scarpetta and Isles are aware of this, as illustrated by the interior monologue with which Gerritsen opens her novel:

They called her the Queen of the Dead. Though no one ever said it to her face, Dr. Maura Isles sometimes heard the nickname murmured in her wake as she travelled the grim triangle of her job between courtroom and death scene and morgue. [...] Sometimes the whispers held a tremolo of disquiet, like the murmurs of the pious as an unholy stranger passes among them. It was the disquiet of those who could not understand why she chose to walk in Death’s footsteps. Does she enjoy it, they wonder? Does the touch of cold flesh, the stench of decay, hold such allure for her that she has turned her back on the living? (Gerritsen 6)

The police officers’ inability to understand why Isles chooses to work with the dead leads them to wonder whether she takes pleasure in it, and because they cannot comprehend how a “normal” person could act that way she is immediately marked as a suspicious Other. Gerritsen’s language builds images of transgression: words such as murmured, wake, whispers, disquiet, unholy, death’s footsteps, cold, stench, and decay suggest a fearful attitude towards the dead and the abjection of the corpse itself, a topic I will explore shortly.        

Isles later describes seeing police officers cast uneasy glances her way, noting details that only reinforce their beliefs that she is an odd duck:

The ivory skin, the black hair with its Cleopatra cut. The red slash of lipstick. Who else wears lipstick to a death scene? Most of all, it’s her calmness that disturbs them, her coolly regal gaze as she surveys the horrors that they themselves can barely stomach. Unlike them, she does not avert her gaze. Instead she bends close and stares, touches. She sniffs. And later, under bright lights in her autopsy lab, she cuts. (Gerritsen 7)      

While the term “odd duck” suggests a somewhat quaintly affectionate tolerance, it is contrasted by the rest of the description: the red slash brings to mind blood and a gaping wound perhaps also suggestive of female genitalia; the calmness, the coolly regal gaze, and the verb “surveys” imply detachment; the willingness to move close to the corpse, to touch and even smell it, and later cut it open, emphasise the difference between the police officers, who can “barely stomach” the sight, and Isles who readily goes much further.

Kristeva describes the abject as that which is not one thing or another (4). The corpse is recognisable as once-human, but is no-longer; the body was once Subject, but we cannot make ourselves perceive it yet as fully Object, and thus it is incomprehensible and abject. I suggest that the abject is suspicious because of this “neither-nor” nature: its liminal identity cannot be pinned down, its meaning cannot be determined, and therefore it cannot be trusted. In the abject corpse, “that compelling, raw, insolent thing in the morgue’s full sunlight [...] that thing that no longer matches and therefore no longer signifies anything” (Kristeva 4), we see the loss of borders between ourselves and the Other, and we are simultaneously “drawn to and repelled” by it; “nausea is a biological recognition of it, and fear and adrenalin also acknowledge its presence” (Pentony). In these novels the police officers’ recognition of these feelings in themselves emphasises their assumptions about the apparent lack of the same responses in the female pathologist investigators. In the quote from The Sinner above, for example, the officers are unnerved by Isles’ calmness around the thing they can barely face. In Postmortem, the security guard who works for the morgue hides behind his desk when a body is delivered (17) and refuses to enter the body storage area when requested to do so (26) in contrast with Scarpetta’s ease with the corpses.

Abjection results from “that which disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules” (Kristeva 4), and by having what appears to be an unnatural reaction to the corpse, these women are perceived as failing to respect systems and boundaries and therefore are viewed as abject themselves. At the same time, however, the female characters strive against the abject in their efforts to repair the disturbance caused by the corpse and the crime of murder that produced it by locating evidence leading to the apprehension of the culprit. Ever-present and undermining these attempts to restore order is the evidence of the crime itself, the corpse, which is abject not only for its “neither-nor” status but also because it exposes “the fragility of the law” (Kristeva 4). In addition, these female pathologist characters’ sex causes abjection in another form through their “liminal status” as outsiders in the male hierarchy of law enforcement (Nunn and Biressi 203); while they are employed by it and work to maintain its dominance over law-breakers and society in general, as biological females they can never truly belong.

Abjection also results from the blurring of boundaries between investigator and victim. Such blurring is common in crime fiction, and while it is most likely to develop between criminal and investigator when the investigator is male, when that investigator is female it tends instead to involve the victim (Mizejewski 8). In these novels this is illustrated by the ways in which the female investigators see themselves as similar to the victims by reason of gender plus sensibility and/or work. The first victim in Cornwell’s Postmortem is a young female doctor, and reminders of her similarities to Scarpetta appear throughout the novel, such as when Scarpetta notices the pile of medical journals near the victim's bed (Cornwell 12), and when she considers the importance of the woman's fingers in her work as a surgeon (26). When another character suggests to Scarpetta that, “in a sense, you were her once,” Scarpetta agrees (218). This loss of boundaries between self and not-self can be considered another form of abjection because the status and roles of investigator and victim become unclear, and it also results in an emotional bond, with both Scarpetta and Isles becoming sensitive to what lies in wait for the bodies. This awareness, and the frisson it creates, is in stark contrast to their previous equanimity. For example, when preparing for an autopsy on the body of a nun, Isles finds herself fighting extreme reluctance, knowing that “this was a woman who had chosen to live hidden from the eyes of men; now she would be cruelly revealed, her body probed, her orifices swabbed. The prospect of such an invasion brought a bitter taste to [Isles’s] throat and she paused to regain her composure” (Gerritsen 57). The language highlights the penetrative nature of Isles’s contact with the corpse through words such as revealed, orifices, probed, and invasion, which all suggest unwanted interference, the violence inherent in the dissecting procedures of autopsy, and the masculine nature of the task even when performed by a female pathologist. This in turn adds to the problematic issue here of gender as performance, a subject I will discuss shortly.

In a further blurring of those boundaries, the female characters are often perceived as potential victims by both themselves and others. Critic Lee Horsley describes Scarpetta as “increasingly giv[ing] way to a tendency to see herself in the place of the victim, her interior self exposed and open to inspection by hostile eyes” (154). This is demonstrated in the novel when plot developments see Scarpetta’s work scrutinised (Cornwell 105), when she feels she does not belong to the same world as the living people around her (133), and when she almost becomes a victim in a literal sense at the climax of the novel, when the perpetrator breaks into her home to torture and kill her but is stopped by the timely arrival of a police officer (281).

Similarly, Gerritsen’s character Isles comes to see herself as a possible victim in The Sinner. When it is feared that the criminal is watching the Boston police and Isles realises he may be watching her too, she thinks about how “she was accustomed to being in the eye of the media, but now she considered the other eyes that might be watching her. Tracking her. And she remembered what she had felt in the darkness at [a previous crime scene]: the prey’s cold sense of dread when it suddenly realises it is being stalked” (Gerritsen 222). She too almost becomes a literal victim when the criminal enters her home with intent to kill (323).

As investigators, these characters’ sex causes suspicion because they are “transgressive female bod[ies] occupying the spaces traditionally held by a man” (Mizejewski 6). The investigator in crime fiction has “traditionally been represented as a marginalized outsider” (Mizejewski 11), a person who not only needs to think like the criminal in order to apprehend them but be willing to use violence or to step outside the law in their pursuit of this goal, and is regarded as suspicious as a result. To place a woman in this position then makes that investigator’s role doubly suspicious (Mizejewski 11). Judith Butler’s work on gender as performance provides a useful tool for examining this. Because “the various acts of gender create the gender itself” (Butler 522), these female characters are judged as woman or not-woman according to what they do. By working as investigators in the male-dominated field of law-enforcement and particularly by choosing to spend their days handling the dead in ways that involve the masculine actions of penetrating and dismembering, each has “radically crossed the limits of her gender role, with her choice of the most unsavoury and ‘unfeminine’ of professions” (Vanacker 65). The suspicion this attracts is demonstrated by Scarpetta being compared to her male predecessor who got on so well with the police, judges, and lawyers with whom she struggles (Cornwell 91). This sense of marginalisation and unfavourable comparison is reinforced through her recollections of her time in medical school when she was one of only four women in her class and can remember vividly the isolating tactics the male students employed against the female members (60). One critic has estimated the dates of Scarpetta’s schooling as putting her “on the leading edge of women moving into professionals schools in the early 1970s” (Robinson 97), in the time of second wave feminism, when such changes were not welcomed by all men in the institutions.

In The Sinner, Isles wants her male colleagues to see her as “a brain and a white coat” (Gerritsen 175) rather than a woman, and chooses strategies such as maintaining an “icy professionalism” (109) and always wearing that white coat to ensure she is seen as an intimidating authority figure, as she believes that once they see her as a woman, sex will get in the way (175). She wants to be perceived as a professional with a job to do rather than a prospective sexual partner. The white coat also helps conceal the physical indicators of her sex, such as breasts and hips (mirroring the decision of the murdered nun to hide herself from the eyes of men and revealing their shared sensibility). Butler’s argument that “the distinction between appearance and reality [...] structures a good deal of populist thinking about gender identity” (527) is appropriate here, for Isles’s actions in trying to mask her sex and thus her gender declare to her colleagues that her sex is irrelevant to her role and therefore she can and should be treated as just another colleague performing a task.

Scarpetta makes similar choices. Critic Bobbie Robinson says “Scarpetta triggers the typical distrust of powerful women in a male-oriented world, and in that world she seems determined to swaddle her lurking femininity to construct a persona that keeps her Other” (106), and that “because she perceives her femininity as problematic for others, she intentionally misaligns or masks the expectations of gender so that the masculine and feminine in her cancel each other out, constructing her as an androgyne” (98). Examples of this include Scarpetta’s acknowledgement of her own attractiveness (Cornwell 62) and her nurturing of herself and her niece Lucy through cooking, an activity she describes as “what I do best” (109) while at the same time she hides her emotions from her colleagues (204) and maintains that her work is her priority despite her mother’s accusations that “it’s not natural for a woman” (34). Butler states that “certain kinds of acts are usually interpreted as expressive of a gender core or identity, and that these acts either conform to an expected gender identity or contest that expectation in some way” (527). Scarpetta’s attention to her looks and her enjoyment of cooking conform to a societal assumption of female gender identity, while her construction of an emotionless facade and focus on her work falls more in the area of expected male gender identity.

These characters deliberately choose to perform in a specific manner as a way of coping and succeeding in their workplace: by masking the most overt signs of their sex and gender they are attempting to lessen the suspicion cast upon them by others for not being “woman.” There exists, however, a contradiction between that decision and the clear markers of femininity demonstrated on occasion by both characters, for example, the use by Isles of bright red lipstick and a smart Cleopatra haircut, and the performance by both of the “feminised role as caretaker of, or alignment with, the victim’s body” (Summers-Bremner 133). While the characters do also perform the more masculine role of “rendering [the body’s] secrets in scientific form” (Summers-Bremner 133), a strong focus of the novels is their emotional connection to the bodies and so this feminised role is foregrounded. The attention to lipstick and hairstyle and their overtly caring natures fulfill Butler’s ideas of the conventional performance of gender and may be a reassurance to readers about the characters’ core femininity and their resultant availability for romance sub-plots, however they also have the effect of emphasising the contrasting performative gender elements within these characters and marking them once again in the eyes of other characters as neither one thing nor another, and therefore deserving of suspicion.

In conclusion, the female forensic pathologist investigator is portrayed in the chosen novels as suspicious for her involvement in the abject space that results from her comfort around and identification with the corpse in contrast to the revulsion experienced by her police colleagues; her sex in her roles as investigator and pathologist where these roles are conventionally seen as masculine; and her performance of elements of both masculine and feminine conventional gender roles as she carries out her work. This, however, sets up a further line of inquiry about the central position of the abject in novels featuring female forensic pathologist investigators, as these texts depict this character’s occupation of the abject space as crucial to the solving of the case: it is through her ability to perform the procedures of her job while identifying with the corpse that clues are located, the narrative of events reconstructed, and the criminal identified and apprehended.


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Author Biography

Katherine Howell

Katherine Howell is a PhD (creative writing) student at UQ. She is a former paramedic and an internationally published author of five novels. Her thesis examines the position of the female medical professional protagonist in crime fiction.