Your novels aren’t quite so stuffed with forensic-science detail these days. How come?
I think we’re at a real shift in what we want from crime fiction. I have seen in my own work that I have had to focus more on characters and their relationships as opposed to writing a procedural — a precise, cold following of a trail where someone collects the evidence, analyzes it in the labs, does an autopsy…
So readers have gotten tired of straight procedurals?
The number-one truth that people seem to have forgotten these days is that science doesn’t solve crimes, people do. It used to be that I thought it was really fun to spend 10 pages describing a scene with a scanning electron microscope, and now it’s like, ”Oh, who cares?” [Laughs] I mean, you can watch it on TV!
Do you think this trend is entertainment-wide?
Absolutely! Perfect example: Criminal Minds, which is one of my favorite shows on TV. It has basically no forensics in it — no autopsies, no magic brushes with things glowing in the dark. It’s all psychological. It’s the total opposite of CSI, and I think people want that. It’s much more human-oriented and less technical. We’re right back to where we were when Thomas Harris was writing Silence of the Lambs. We’re fascinated by monsters — and those who chase them.
Someone who can put himself — or herself — into the mind of a killer.
That’s exactly right. You have to be able to conjure up a character who steps off the pages and haunts people. They actually start imagining that they meet somebody and think, ”Wow, he kind of looks like what I imagine Sherlock Holmes looked like,” or ”Wow, I feel like I just ran into Kay Scarpetta.” It’s like a lightning strike.
The great literary detectives have one thing in common: their powers of observation.
An FBI profiler once told me way back in the beginning of my career, ”You know, when I go to a crime scene, what I’m really doing is I’m reading the emotions of the person who did it.” It’s like hieroglyphics. All of these things, whether an ashtray was moved, or the toilet was flushed or it wasn’t, or somebody made a sandwich while he was there — all of these things are painting a composite, a portrait, of the perpetrator. And frankly, I believe that people are a lot more interested in that than the DNA. It’s what we all, in fantasy, want to do: We want to go in that room because we want to know that story.
But some technology does fascinate you, right? Like Twitter?
I often have thought, ”Wow, I wonder if certain historical figures, if they were alive today, if they would tweet.” And then I realized, ”Of course they would.” Take Jack the Ripper. The only evidence that we have from those crimes are letters that he wrote to police and the public. If he were committing these crimes today, I bet there would be anonymous tweets that he’d be finding some way to send using anonymizers and different ways, all these software packages, to avoid someone getting his IP address.