Cornwell, Patricia

views updated

Cornwell, Patricia


Born June 9, 1956, in Miami, FL; daughter of Sam (an attorney) and Marilyn (a secretary; maiden name, Zenner) Daniels; married Charles Cornwell (a college professor), June 14, 1980 (divorced, 1990). Education: Davidson College, North Carolina, B.A. (English), 1979. Religion: Presbyterian. Hobbies and other interests: Tennis.


Home—Connecticut. Agent—International Creative Management, 40 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.


Novelist. Charlotte Observer, Charlotte, NC, police reporter, 1979-81; Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Richmond, VA, computer analyst, 1985-91. Volunteer police officer. Bell Vision Productions (film production company), president.


International Crime Writers Association, International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Association of Identification, National Association of Medical Examiners, Authors Guild, Authors League, Mystery Writers of America, Virginia Writers Club.

Awards, Honors

Investigative reporting award, North Carolina Press Association, 1980, for a series on prostitution; Gold Medallion Book Award for biography, Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, 1985, for A Time for Remembering: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham; John Creasy Award, British Crime Writers Association, Edgar Allan Poe Award, Mystery Writers of America, Anthony Award, Boucheron, World Mystery Convention, and Macavity Award, Mystery Readers International, all for best first crime novel, all 1990, and French Prix du Roman d'Aventure, 1991, all for Postmortem; Gold Dagger award, 1993, for Cruel and Unusual.



Postmortem (also see below), Scribner (New York, NY), 1990.

Body of Evidence (also see below), Scribner (New York, NY), 1991.

All That Remains (also see below), Scribner (New York, NY), 1992.

Cruel and Unusual, Scribner (New York, NY), 1993.

The Body Farm, Scribner (New York, NY), 1994.

From Potter's Field, Scribner (New York, NY), 1995.

Cause of Death, Putnam (New York, NY), 1996.

Hornet's Nest, Putnam (New York, NY), 1997.

Unnatural Exposure, Putnam (New York, NY), 1997.

Three Complete Novels: Postmortem, Body of Evidence, All That Remains, Smithmark Publishers (New York, NY), 1997.

Point of Origin, Putnam (New York, NY), 1998.

Southern Cross, Putnam (New York, NY), 1998.

Scarpetta's Winter Table, Wyrick & Co. (Charleston, SC), 1998.

Black Notice, Putnam (New York, NY), 1999.

The Last Precinct, Putnam (New York, NY), 2000.

Isle of Dogs, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2001.

Blow Fly, Putnam (New York, NY), 2003.

Scarpetta Collection (includes Postmortem and Body of Evidence), Scribner (New York, NY), 2003.


A Time for Remembering: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham (biography), Harper (New York, NY), 1983.

Life's Little Fable, illustrated by Barbara Leonard Gibson, Putnam (New York, NY), 1999.

(With Marlene Brown) Food to Die For: Secrets from Kay Scarpetta's Kitchen, Putnam (New York, NY), 2001.

Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed, Putnam (New York, NY), 2002.


Brilliance Corp. released a sound recording of Body of Evidence in 1992; sound recordings were also produced of Postmortem, All That Remains, Cruel and Unusual, The Body Farm, and From Potter's Field.


Patricia Cornwell is an award-winning novelist of forensic mysteries and police procedurals that focus on medical autopsies and investigations. Her novels are characterized by the graphic authenticity of their detail and their compelling psychological studies of professionals at work. Cornwell has helped expand the role of the female detective in the mystery genre with her two recurring heroines—medical examiner Kay Scarpetta and police chief Judy Hammer. Her books' accurate detail is based upon research Cornwell did while a journalist working the beat in the Virginia medical examiner's office, where she witnessed scores of autopsies. In addition to this, Cornwell has also gone on police homicide runs. "I'm not sure I could have read my last book if I hadn't written it," Cornwell told Sandra McElwaine in Harper's Bazaar. "The violence is so real, I think it would have scared me to death." Cornwell's books regularly debut on the New York Times bestseller list and have a reputation for confronting readers with the occasional stomach-turning passage due to their graphic descriptions of dismemberment, murder, autopsies, and forensic pathology. The author—reputedly one of the highest-paid writers in North America, earning more than $8 million for each "Scarpetta book"—"can write engagingly for pages on techniques for reading blood splatter," remarked Entertainment Weekly writer Gillian Flynn.

Raised in a Foster Home

Cornwell was born on June 9, 1956, in Miami, Florida, to Sam and Marilyn Zenner Daniels. Her parents divorced when Cornwell was five years old, and her mother moved her daughter and two sons to Montreat, North Carolina. By the time Cornwell was nine years old her mother was suffering from severe clinical depression. Unable to cope, she turned her children over to her Montreat neighbors, the Reverend and Mrs. Billy Graham. Ruth Graham put the children into foster care with a missionary couple who had recently returned from the Congo. It was Ruth Graham who encouraged young Cornwell to pursue writing. "I felt she had real ability," Graham told Joe Treen in People. "I've kept every note I ever got from her." In high school Cornwell earned top grades, but pushed herself in other areas as well, battling anorexia and bulimia. She was briefly hospitalized for depression in the same facility where her mother had once stayed. With Graham's encouragement, Cornwell went back to school at Davidson College in North Carolina, majoring in English. Right after graduation she married Charles Cornwell, one of her former professors, and began working as a crime reporter for the Charlotte Observer. "I had a compulsion to get close to every story. I really wanted to solve crimes," Cornwell told McElwaine. In 1980 Cornwell received an investigative reporting award from the North Carolina Press Association for a series she did on prostitution. Unfortunately, just when she felt her career was getting underway, her husband decided that he wanted to become a minister, and the couple moved to Richmond, Virginia, where Charles Cornwell attended Union Theological Seminary. "I did not want to give up the Observer," Cornwell told Treen. "It was a very bad time for me." During this period, Cornwell began working with her husband to expand a newspaper profile she had written on Ruth Graham into her first book, A Time for Remembering: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham.

The book's success—it won the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association Gold Medallion Book Award—led Cornwell to consider writing more books. She had always pictured herself as a novelist, so she decided to try writing crime novels with the information she had gathered as a reporter. She realized that she would need to do more in-depth research to make her murder plots seem more believable. A friend recommended that she talk to the deputy medical examiner at the Virginia Morgue, pathologist Dr. Marcella Fierro.

Her first appointment with Fierro was illuminating for Cornwell: there was a whole world of high-tech forensic procedures she knew nothing about. "I was shocked by two things," Cornwell told Joanne Tangorra in Publishers Weekly. "One, by how fascinating it was, and two, by how absolutely little I knew about it. I realized I had no idea what a medical examiner would do—Did they put on gloves, wear lab coats and surgical greens? They do none of the above." Cornwell soon became a regular visitor at the forensic center and also took on technicalwriting projects for the morgue to absorb more of the forensic knowledge she craved. The result was Postmortem, the first in a series of mysteries chronicling Cornwell's fictional investigative forensic pathologist, Dr. Kay Scarpetta.

A Woman in a Man's Job

Postmortem focuses on the rape and murder of several Richmond women by a serial killer. The book charts the work of Scarpetta, the chief medical examiner of Virginia, as she attempts to uncover the killer's identity. Frequently faced with sexism regarding her ability to handle a "man's job," Scarpetta aptly displays her knowledge of the innovative technologies of today's forensic medicine to crack the case. "Scarpetta has a terrible time with the chauvinists around her, one of whom in particular is malevolently eager for her to fail," wrote Charles Champlin in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "These passages have the ring of truth as experienced, and so does the portrait of an investigative reporter who abets the solving."

Postmortem won a raft of first-time mystery awards, but, as New York Times Book Review contributor Bill Kent noted, "the follow-up novel, Body of Evidence, proved that Ms. Cornwell's success wasn't mere beginner's luck." Body of Evidence centers on Beryl Madison, a young woman who is writing a controversial book for which she has received death threats. Shortly after she reports these events she is murdered—apparently after allowing the killer to enter her home. Scarpetta must once again use tiny bits of evidence to track down the murderer. In 1993's Cruel and Unusual Scarpetta is baffled by crime-scene fingerprints, which match those of an executed killer, and the ensuing mystery promptedEntertainment Weekly writer Mark Harris to note that, with her fourth novel, "Cornwell has become an increasingly skilled plotter."

In subsequent novels in the series Cornwell introduces Temple Gault, a serial killer with intelligence to match Scarpetta's. Gault, who specializes in the murder of children, only narrowly escapes being captured by Scarpetta herself in Cruel and Unusual. "With his pale blue eyes and his ability to anticipate the best minds of law enforcement," wrote Elise O'Shaughnessy in the New York Times Book Review, "Gault is a 'malignant genius' in the tradition of Hannibal Lecter," the cannibalistic character in Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs. "Like Lecter's bond with Clarice Starling," O'Shaughnessy concluded, "Gault's relationship with Scarpetta is personal."

Scarpetta faces Gault again in Cornwell's 1995 novel, From Potter's Field, set in New York City. Critics again noted the depth of research required to produce the novel; as Mary B. W. Tabor commented in the New York Times: "There is something especially savory about novels set in real places, with real street names, real shops, real sights and smells that ring true for those who know the territory." In this novel Scarpetta is called in after Gault murders a young homeless woman on Christmas Eve in Central Park. Booklist reviewer Emily Melton compared reading From Potter's Field to "riding one of those amusement-park roller coasters . . . [that leave] the rider gasping and breathless." Melton lauded Cornwell's "magnificent plotting, masterful writing, and marvelous suspense," rating her among the top crime fiction writers. "Cornwell is superb in evoking the cold, bare, tawdry facts of murder and their aftermath on the mortuary tray," remarked New Statesman and Society critic Mary Scott.

In a column for Mystery Scene, Cornwell shed some light on the nature of her popular heroine, Scarpetta. "Violence is filtered through her intellectual sophistication and inbred civility, meaning that the senseless cruelty of what she sees is all the more horrific," the author explained. Scarpetta "approaches the cases with the sensitivity of a physician, the rational thinking of a scientist, and the outrage of a humane woman who values, above all else, the sanctity of life. Through Dr. Scarpetta's character I began to struggle with an irony that had eluded me before: the more expert one gets in dismantling death, the less he understands it." Scarpetta's crime-solving skills, based on her sharp eye for pieces of seemingly insignificant forensic evidence, are aided by a cast of secondary characters, including police detective Pete Marino, who comes to possess a grudging respect for the shrewd Scarpetta, as well as FBI agent Mark James—a former paramour of Scarpetta's—and Scarpetta's computer-whiz niece, Lucy Farinelli.

In 1996 Cornwell switched publishers and signed a contract with publisher Penguin Putnam, reportedly in the realm of $24 million for three books. Cause of Death, which appeared in 1996, was her first for the house. Her impressive sales figures continued with Unnatural Exposure in 1997, Point of Origin, published in 1998, and with her new, lighter series of crime fiction featuring Andy Brazil, a young police detective with a journalism background. Hornet's Nest, Southern Cross, and Isle of Dogs belong to this second series. Cornwell explained the move in an interview with a London Independent contributor by noting that, for her, the Brazil stories came as a respite. "Scarpetta takes a tremendous amount of energy," Cornwell confessed. "It's very painful, writing about Scarpetta, because of her world, and I have to go back into that world to write about it. People think I get some kind of great personal satisfaction from going into the morgue, but it isn't true." She has also—somewhat ironically, given the fact that one of her "Scarpetta" novels was awarded "the Lose Your Lunch Award" by New York Times crime-fiction writer Marilyn Stasio for a vividly chronicled autopsy—penned a novelette centered on a holiday-season get-together, Scarpetta's Winter Table, as well as the cookbook Food to Die For: Secrets from Kay Scarpetta's Kitchen.

Scarpetta the Crusader

Cornwell has said that her books often attract a bad element. "I've been stalked, blackmailed," she said in the Newsweek interview. "I have a huge list of inmates who can't wait to meet me." She also attracted a contentious lawsuit brought by a Virginia couple. Their daughter had been slain some years before, and many details of the murder were similar to those in All That Remains. Cornwell, who had quit working at the Virginia morgue by the time that novel was published, was defended by Dr. Fierro, who said that any similarities had been culled from published newspaper accounts, not sealed forensic evidence. Independent Sunday writer Lucretia Stewart discussed the author's intriguing background and its relation to her fiction. "In Cornwell's writing, it is possible to discern both the impulse that led her to write about Ruth Bell Graham and to marry a minister, and the impulse that drove her to work in a mortuary. She is a particularly moral writer: right and wrong, good and evil, black and white—there are no shades of grey in her books. Scarpetta is [a] lone crusader against evil, an avenging angel holding a flaming scalpel in her hand."

Cornwell has forced Scarpetta to evolve as her fictional character ages. Beginning with Black Notice a decade into the series, Scarpetta seeks therapy due to the stresses of her job and displays a more vulnerable side. In this particular story, she tracks the murderous Jean-Baptiste Chandonne, nicknamed the Wolfman for his rare condition of hyperhirsuteness. Chandonne is suspected in the death of Scarpetta's foe, police officer Diane Bray, but in 2000's The Last Precinct, Scarpetta is attacked in her home by the Wolfman and then finds herself the prime suspect in a grand jury investigation into Bray's death. Entertainment Weekly reviewer Flynn liked the new twist, as Scarpetta "slips into her past and pokes at her own wounds. She is, finally, losing her cool—and it's a truly enjoyable jolt."

In Blow Fly Scarpetta has finally called it quits with her job and left the medical examiner's office to become a private forensic consultant based in Baton Rouge, Florida; she is also depressed over the death of her lover, Benton Wesley, and upset when the Wolfman continues to attempt to draw her into his murderous schemes. Not surprisingly, bodies start turning up in short order, forcing Scarpetta to resume sifting through grisly details. While noting that, when Scarpetta finally overcomes her slump, "she is a feisty, independent powerhouse whose capacity, to concentrate and observe rivals Sherlock Holmes's," a Publishers Weekly contributor found that a large portion of the novel involves "retrospective musings." In Library Journal, Leslie Madden dubbed Blow Fly the "most shocking Scarpetta installment," and added that the novel will be required reading for fans of the long-running series. Spectator reviewer Olivia Glazebrook noted a dramatic change in the book's construction: "This is Cornwell's first Scarpetta story told in the third person," wrote Glazebrook of the lengthy novel, "and she takes full advantage of her new freedom, introducing five narrative voices in the first ten chapters."

If you enjoy the works of Patricia Cornwell

If you enjoy the works of Patricia Cornwell, you might want to check out the following books:

Sue Grafton, R Is for Ricochet, 2004.

Jonathan Kellerman, Dr. Death, 2001.

James Patterson, Third Degree, 2004.

Kathy Reichs, Bare Bones, 2003.

Investigates Jack the Ripper

Cornwell took some thirteen months to research and write her nonfiction book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed. In the book she claims to have solved the mystery of Jack the Ripper's identity, which was still unknown a century after the mysterious killer committed a series of gruesome murders in London's East End. "I thought it would be interesting," she explained to Galina Espinoza in People Weekly, "to see what we could find out with forensic science about a case that's so old." Cornwell came to believe that the respected British Impressionist artist Walter Sickert (1860-1942) was the real Jack the Ripper, and her book makes the case for this theory. Sickert's artwork provides one source of evidence for Cornwell, who claims that several of Sickert's paintings of nude women resemble the Ripper's victims. She also argues that letters supposedly written by Jack the Ripper to London newspapers match Sickert's handwriting and were written on stationary owned by Sickert. Cornwell believes that she has also identified later victims of the Ripper, victims not hitherto linked to the infamous killer. When asked by Jeff Zaleski in Publishers Weekly whether it was worth the time and expense—a reputed $6 million of Cornwell's own money—to investigate the Jack the Ripper case, Cornwell replied: "It's worth it if it helps put a stop to the celebration of this man and his crimes. And a greater good, which applies to the living, is that this is an opportunity to push forensic science to limits that it hasn't been pushed to before—for example, using DNA on a 114-year-old case." Edward Karam in People found that "if gaps remain in the hard evidence, Cornwell's thesis is pretty convincing." Brad Hooper in Booklist concluded that Portrait of a Killer "is a well-constructed, endlessly fascinating account."

"I've always wanted to write, just because I love it," Cornwell told Dorman T. Shindler in Writer. "My dream was just to get published. I never thought in terms of making money. And I never thought I'd be on a bestseller list or that anybody would know who I am."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Contemporary Popular Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.

Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, Scribner (New York, NY), 1998.


Armchair Detective, winter, 1991, p. 32.

Book, November-December, 2002, "Don't Fear the Ripper," p. 22.

Booklist, May 1, 1995; December 1, 2002, Brad Hooper, review of Portrait of a Killer, p. 626; October 1, 2003, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Blow Fly, p. 275.

Bookseller, December 14, 2001, p. 23.

Daily Variety, January 10, 2002, p. 6.

Economist, December 13, 1997, p. S14; June 19, 1999, p. 4.

Entertainment Weekly, June 26, 1992, p. 73; June 25, 1993, p. 98; August 25, 1995, p. 106; July 12, 1996, p. 50; August 9, 1996, p. 52; January 10, 1997, p. 50; December 1, 2000, p. 89; January 25, 2002, p. 97; October 17, 2003, Jennifer Reese, review of Blow Fly, p. 86.

Esquire, January, 1997, p. 14.

Harper's Bazaar, August, 1992, pp. 46, 148.

Independent (London, England), November 17, 2001, p. 10.

Independent Sunday (London, England), June 30, 1996, p. 19.

Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 1995; October 1, 2003, review of Blow Fly, p. 1201.

Library Journal, September 1, 1994, p. 213; November 15, 2003, Leslie Madden, review of Blow Fly, p. 96.

Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1991, p. F12.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 11, 1990, p. 5; February 10, 1991, p. 9; September 20, 1992, p. 8.

Mystery Scene, January, 1990, pp. 56-57.

Newsweek, August 3, 1992; July 5, 1993; July 22, 1996, p. 70.

New York Times Book Review, January 7, 1990; February 24, 1991; August 23, 1992; April 4, 1993, p. 19; July 4, 1993; September 16, 1994, pp. 38-39.

People, August 24, 1992, pp. 71-72; October 3, 1994, pp. 37-38; December 9, 2002, Edward Karam, review of Portrait of a Killer, p. 55, and Galina Espinoza, "Killer Instinct: Author Patricia Cornwell Thinks She Has Unmasked a Notorious Serial Killer," p. 101; October 27, 2003, Edward Karam, review of Blow Fly, p. 05.

Publishers Weekly, December 7, 1990, p. 76; February 15, 1991, pp. 71-72; June 15, 1992, p. 89; September 12, 1994; January 4, 1999, p. 76; July 31, 2000, p. 18; September 25, 2000, p. 90; October 30, 2000, p. 24; January 8, 2001, p. 35; October 22, 2001, p. 16; November 11, 2002, review of Portrait of a Killer, p. 52, and Jeff Zaleski, "On the Trail of Jack the Ripper," p. 53; October 6, 2003, review of Blow Fly, p. 61; October 23, 2003, review of Blow Fly, p. 17.

School Library Journal, December, 1992, pp. 146-147.

Skeptical Inquirer, March-April, 2003, Joe Nickell, "The Strange Case of Pat the Ripper," p. 55.

Spectator, November 9, 2002, Richard Shone, "Verdict as Open as Ever," p. 84; November 22, 2003, Olivia Glazebrook, review of Blow Fly, p. 58.

Time, September 14, 1992; October 3, 1994.

Times Literary Supplement, July 16, 1993, p. 22.

Variety, April 9, 2001, p. 12.

Washington Post Book World, January 21, 1990, p. 6.

Wilson Library Bulletin, December, 1993.

Writer, December, 2000, p. 7; March, 2001, p. 30.*

About this article

Cornwell, Patricia

Updated About content Print Article