This Day In Writing History
On June 9th, 1956, the famous crime thriller novelist Patricia Cornwell was born Patricia Carroll Daniels in Miami, Florida. A descendant of legendary writer and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, Cornwell's father, Sam Daniels, was a prominent appellate lawyer and served as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. On Christmas Day, 1961, when she was five years old, Cornwell's father walked out on the family. Her mother moved her and her siblings to Montreat, North Carolina.
Patricia Cornwell's mother suffered from severe depression and had to be hospitalized. Her children were placed in foster care. By her late teens, Patricia herself suffered from depression, was anorexic, and struggled throughout her life with bipolar disorder. Her troubled relationship with her emotionally abusive father would later be reflected in her most famous character, medical examiner turned sleuth Dr. Kay Scarpetta.
In the late 1970s, after graduating Davidson College, Patricia married one of her English professors, Charles Cornwell, who was 17 years older. He left his tenured position to become a preacher, and she began writing a biography of Ruth Bell Graham, wife of famous evangelist Billy Graham. In 1979, Patricia landed a job as a reporter for The Charlotte Observer and began covering crime. Her book, A Time For Remembering, later renamed Ruth, A Portrait: The Story Of Ruth Bell Graham was published in 1983. It was Ruth who encouraged Patricia to become a novelist.
In 1984, Patricia Cornwell took a job at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Virginia, working there for six years, first as a technical writer, then as a computer analyst. She also did volunteer work for the Richmond Police Department. She and her husband Charles divorced in 1989. Though she had written three novels in the 1980s, they were rejected. But in 1991, her novel Postmortem - the first in her long running Kay Scarpetta series - was published and became a huge success.
In Postmortem, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Chief Medical Examiner for the state of Virginia, helps homicide detective Pete Marino track a brutal and elusive serial killer who appears to be choosing his victims at random - they have absolutely no connection to each other. After extensively researching all the victims' lives, Scarpetta discovers a connection that breaks the case wide open - and almost costs the doctor her life.
Following the success of Postmortem, Patricia Cornwell wrote over a dozen more Kay Scarpetta crime thrillers, with the latest, Port Mortuary, due for release in November, 2010. She has written other novels, as well as non-fiction including cookbooks and a controversial book about the legendary 19th century British serial killer Jack The Ripper called Portrait Of A Killer: Jack The Ripper - Case Closed in which she claimed that the Ripper was really English impressionist painter Walter Sickert, who had been previously mentioned by others as possibly either a Freemason conspirator or a direct accomplice to the murders. Cornwell's contention that DNA found on a letter written by Jack The Ripper belonged to Sickert - and proved that he was the Ripper - was loudly derided by experts on Sickert and the Ripper murders.
Patricia Cornwell's personal life twice imitated her crime thriller fiction. In 1991, while doing research for her Scarpetta novels, she became friends with Margo Bennett, a married FBI agent and mother of two whose husband, Gene, was also an FBI agent. The two women later embarked on an affair. When Gene Bennett discovered his wife's infidelity with another woman, he tried to kill Margo, then abducted her minister and threatened to blow up his church.
Gene Bennett was later convicted of a host of charges, including attempted murder and abduction. He was sentenced to a total of 23 years in prison. Patricia Cornwell denied any responsibility for the incidents, blaming the Bennetts' already troubled marriage. She later came out as a lesbian and married her partner, Dr. Staci Ann Gruber, in Massachusetts. In a 2008 interview in the gay news magazine The Advocate, Cornwell credited lesbian tennis great Billie Jean King with inspiring her to come to terms with her sexual identity and come out.
In 2000, Cornwell was stalked by a disturbed writer named Leslie Sachs who claimed that in her 2000 Kay Scarpetta novel The Last Precinct, she plagiarized his 1998 novel, The Virginia Ghost Murders. Sachs sent letters to Cornwell's publisher, established a web site dedicated to attacking her and placed stickers on copies of his novels alleging that Cornwell was a plagiarist.
Finding Sachs' plagiarism claims totally baseless, The United States District Court of Virginia granted Cornwell an injunction, shutting down Sachs' web site and ordering him to remove the stickers from his books. He fled to Belgium to escape the injunction. He continued attacking her on the Internet, claiming that she was a neo-Nazi and Jew hater, she had bribed judges, and was conspiring to have him killed. Cornwell won a libel suit against him and was awarded approximately $38,000 for legal costs, but Sachs never showed up for the trial.
Politically conservative and a personal friend of former President George H.W. Bush, (whom she called Big George) Cornwell was disappointed in the presidency of his son, George W. Bush, saying "I was supportive of young George Bush because I liked his family. I thought he was going to be another Big George. Boy, was I ever wrong. It's not a democracy so much as a theocracy, and those are not the principles this country was founded on." She has occasionally supported Democratic candidates for office.
While doing research on the criminal mind for her 2005 Kay Scarpetta novel Predator, Cornwell, a proponent of the death penalty, surprised her conservative fans by denouncing capital punishment, concluding that the mind is developed by both nature and nurture acting upon each other, something she herself experienced during her struggle with bipolar disorder.
Patricia Cornwell is without a doubt one of the great modern crime thriller novelists.
Quote Of The Day
“It's criminal if successful authors don't support literacy. I challenge them all to write a check.” - Patricia Cornwell
Today's video features Patricia Cornwell discussing crime writing. Enjoy!