Acclaimed and highly successful Crime Writer

A Painful Childhood

Born Patricia Daniels on 9th June 1956 in Miami, Florida, to Marilyn and Sam Daniels, a secretary and lawyer respectively. In 1963, at the age of 7, Cornwell vividly remembers hanging onto her father's leg and begging him to stay as he walked out on his family to be with his pregnant secretary, soon after which her mother moved Cornwell and her two brothers to Montreat, North Carolina. The property that they relocated to was just two miles from the Rev. Billy Graham and his wife, Ruth. Life became so desperate for the family that, at one point, Cornwell's mother begged the Graham's to take custody her children so that they may have a brighter future. The Graham's flatly refused, but the children were moved to stay with missionary friends of the Graham's while their mother recuperated. During this time Ruth Graham befriended the young Patricia, gave her an old leather-bound journal, and encouraged her to write - mainly as a medium for portraying her feelings and emotions.

After transferring from King College, Cornwell attended Davidson College in North Carolina; in her senior year she began working at the Charlotte Observer newspaper, inserting the daily television listings. It was in her time at Davidson College that Cornwell met her future husband, Charles Cornwell. He was 17 years her senior, and also happened to be her English Professor! They were married late 1979, but it was a marriage that was unfortunately to last only 10 years, ending in divorce in 1989.

Gaining Work and Life Experience

Promotion from the Charlotte Observer took Cornwell into the newsroom as a clerk. Eventually Cornwell worked her way forward to become a beat reporter, having the police beat as her main duty. In this time, writing as Patsy Daniels, Cornwell won an investigative reporting award from the North Carolina Press Association for her published series on local prostitution. 'Personal' writing was still important for Cornwell, and in 1983 she published her biography of Ruth Graham, A Time For Remembering, which won Gold Medallion Book Award for biography by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association in 1985.

In 1984, Cornwell took a job as a part time technical writer in the Virginia Medical Examiner's Office before becoming a full time computer analyst for the office in 1989, after a physician friend in Richmond suggested that she should talk to a medical examiner to get an insider's view of the forensic sciences. The doctor referred her to Dr. Marcella Fierro, the Chief M.E. of Virginia, and then the Deputy Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia. Cornwell also became a voluntary Police Officer in order to gain knowledge of what community police work was like.

Aside from the painful memories of her childhood, Cornwell has experienced many challenges in her life, numbering anorexia and bulimia, manic depression, rape by a law enforcement officer when she was a young crime reporter, and, in 1983, a car wreck when she was driving whilst intoxicated. Cornwell always refers to the accident as "a necessary life experience" that eventually led her to alcohol rehab. Many of her fans believe that all of these 'life experiences' go towards making Cornwell's novels the literary masterpieces that they are.

A Change in Writing Style

After the success of her first book, Cornwell wrote 3 novels in 4 years - all of which were rejected by several publishers. Disheartened, Cornwell wrote to Sara Ann Freed, an editor at Mysterious Press, the one publishing house that had softened its rejection with encouragement. Freed told her to dump the male detective who was then her central character. She suggested expanding Kay Scarpetta, who in Cornwell's early works played only a minor role, and focusing on writing about the world that she knew - Forensic Science. Following this advice, Cornwell used a sensational Richmond case of a serial killer as the foundation for her first novel, Postmortem, but again it was rejected by the publishers. Cornwell continued to look for a publishing house that would entertain her novel, and in 1990, Scribner's bought Postmortem for $6,000. The book went on to be a best seller, and it was the first novel to win Edgar, Creasey, Anthony, Macavity, and the French Prix du Roman d'Adventurei in a single year. However, it was not all fame and fortune for Cornwell, as in 1991, she was at the centre of controversy when a copycat killer used the MO of the serial killer in Postmortem; fortunately, he was soon caught and convicted and Cornwell defended her book, even though it did bring her into the spot light in a rather unflattering way! After both the success of Postmortem and the unfortunate publicity, Cornwell was now a recognised crime writer, and in March 1991 she signed a $385,000 deal for the paperback rights of her second novel, Body of Evidence - a slight increase from the $6000 received for her original novel!

It was reported by the Chicago Tribune that Columbia Pictures had purchased the rights to Cruel and Unusual for a seven-figure sum, and that Demi Moore was to be contracted in to both produce and take the leading role in the movie version of this successful bestseller. However, this was reported in 1992 and, even to this day, there is no sign of any movie based upon Cornwells novels being filmed or released. Im sure that if or when the film is ever released, Cornwell fans worldwide will have their own expectations as to who should play their favorite characters - among the stars idealised to play Kay Scarpetta include actresses such as Glen Close, Susan Sarandon and even Patricia Cornwell herself!

In 1995 the Putnam Berkley Group managed to easily convince Cornwell to move away from Scribner, partly because she was unhappy about Scribner's timing of the release of The Body Farm, as it clashed with Putnam's release of Clancy's Debt of Honor and probably prevented Cornwell from being first on the New York Times best-seller list. Cornwell signed a three book deal worth $24 million with Putnam, and Cause of Death was published in July 1996, alongside the first non-Scarpetta mystery, Hornet's Nest, which was released in January 1997.

Again, in June 1996 Cornwell's name came up in the wake of a strange real-life drama. 41-year-old ex-FBI agent Eugene Bennett had repeatedly claimed that his ex-wife was a lesbian and that she had an affair with Cornwell in 1992 when 42-year-old Marguerite Bennett worked as an instructor and hostage negotiator at FBI's Quantico facilities. Eugene Bennett carried out many bizarre activities ending on June 23, 1996, when he took his wife's minister hostage and planted pipe bombs at the Northern Virginia Community College where Marguerite Bennett worked as a police lieutenant. For this he was found guilty of, among other charges, attempted murder by a jury on February 11 1997, and despite an insanity claim, was recommended for 61 years in prison. On May 15 1997 he was sentenced to 23 years in prison. Within Cornwell's novels, she eventually introduces Scarpetta's neice, Lucy, as having a female partner, and many people speculate that Cornwell herself is a lesbian - however, this has never been confirmed by Cornwell or any person that is close to her.

Patricia Cornwell Today

Patricia Cornwell lives with her dog, Chopper, and now splits her time between Richmond, Virginia and Los Angeles. She has kept her link to Davidson College and sponsors scholarships to Davidson students with exceptional abilities in creative writing. Perhaps Cornwell's most significant contribution to date is the role she played in the creation of the Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine - the nation's first institution to train forensic scientists and pathologists. In addition to her $1.5 million donation, Cornwell has worked to involve top-notch scientists and pathologists in creating what she hopes will become the 'Johns Hopkins of forensic science and medical training.'
'One compelling aspect of Cornwell’s novels is nail biting realism. The experience of reading a Cornwell novel produces an "edge of the seat" anticipation. Finding it impossible to close the book, readers will find themselves staying up all night anxiously turning the pages.'


1990 Postmortem
1991 Body of Evidence
1992 All That Remains
1993 Cruel and Unusual
1994 The Body Farm
1995 From Potter's Field
1996 Cause Of Death
1997 Hornet's Nest
1997 Unnatural Exposure
1998 Point Of Origin
1999 Southern Cross
1999 Black Notice
2000 The Last Prescinct
2001 Isle Of Dogs

Ref: The Patricia Cornwell Club Biography & Newsletter

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