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Patricia Cornwell

Patricia Cornwell

Novelist, journalist, biographer
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro Novelist, journalist, biographer
Countries United States of America
Occupations Writer Novelist Journalist
Gender female
Birth June 9, 1956 (Miami)
Residence Virginia, Florida
Education Davidson College, King University
Patricia Cornwell
The details

Patricia Cornwell (born Patricia Carroll Daniels; June 9, 1956) is a contemporary American crime writer. She is widely known for writing a popular series of novels featuring the heroine Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a medical examiner. Her books have sold more than 100 million copies.

Early life

A descendant of abolitionist and writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, Cornwell was born on June 9, 1956 in Miami, Florida, second of three children, to Marilyn (née Zenner) and Sam Daniels. Her father was one of the leading appellate lawyers in the United States and served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. Cornwell later traced her own motivations in life to the emotional abuse she says she suffered from her father, who walked out on the family on Christmas Day 1961. She has said, "He was on his deathbed. We knew it was the last time we were seeing each other; he grabbed my brother's hand and mouthed 'I love you,' but he never touched me. All he did was write on a legal pad 'How's work?'"

In 1961, Marilyn left with three children in tow and moved to Montreat, North Carolina. Ruth Bell Graham, wife of world-famous evangelist Billy Graham took the wayward family in and arranged for Cornwell and her brothers, Jim and John, to be raised by Lenore and Manfred Saunders, who had recently returned from Africa. Marilyn Daniels, suffering from severe depression, was hospitalized. Cornwell turned to Ruth Bell Graham as an authority figure, and it was she who noticed that Cornwell's talent lay in writing and encouraged her literary efforts. A bright student, a capable cartoonist, and a talented athlete on the tennis court, Cornwell attended King College in Bristol, Tennessee briefly before transferring to Davidson College on a tennis scholarship (which she later rejected), from where she graduated in 1979 with a B.A. in English.


In 1979, Cornwell started working as a reporter for The Charlotte Observer, first editing TV listings, then working in features, and finally becoming a reporter covering crime. In 1980, she received Investigative Reporting Award for a series on prostitution from the North Carolina Press Association. She continued to work at the newspaper until 1981, when she moved to Richmond, Virginia with her husband, David Cornwell (married in 1980), who enrolled at the Union Theological Seminary. The same year she began working on the biography of Ruth Bell Graham, A Time for Remembering: The Ruth Bell Graham Story (renamed Ruth, A Portrait: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham in subsequent editions), which was published in 1983. The biography earned her a Gold Medallion Book Award from the Evangelic Christian Publishers Association in 1985. It also, however, was a major blow to her friendship with Graham- they weren't on speaking terms for 8 years following the book's publication.

1984 was a significant year for Cornwell- she began work on her first novel, about a male detective named Joe Constable and met Dr. Marcella Farinelli Fierro, a medical examiner in Richmond, and subsequent inspiration for the character of Dr. Kay Scarpetta. In 1985, she took a job at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia. She worked there for six years, first as a technical writer and then as a computer analyst. She also volunteered to work with the Richmond Police Department. Cornwell wrote three novels that she says were rejected before the publication, in 1990, of the first installment of her Scarpetta series, Postmortem, based on real-life stranglings in Richmond in the summer of 1987. The novel won her various awards including the British John Creasey Award, the French Prix du Roman d'Adventure and the American Edgar Award.

Scarpetta series

The Scarpetta novels include a great deal of detail on forensic science. The initial resolution to the mystery is found in the forensic investigation of the murder victim's corpse, although Scarpetta does considerably more field investigation and confrontation with suspects than real-life medical examiners. The novels generally climax with action scenes in which Scarpetta and her associates confront, or are confronted by, the killer or killers, usually concluding with the death of the killer. The novels are considered to have influenced the development of popular TV series on forensics, both fictional, such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and documentaries, such as Cold Case Files.

Other significant themes in the Scarpetta novels include health, individual safety and security, food, family, and the emerging sexual self-discovery of Scarpetta's niece. Often, conflicts and secret manipulations by Scarpetta's colleagues and staff are involved in the storyline and make the murder cases more complex. Although scenes from the novels take place in a variety of locations around the United States and (less commonly) internationally, they center around the city of Richmond, Virginia.

There are two remarkable style shifts in the Scarpetta novels. Starting from The Last Precinct (2000), the style changes from past tense to present tense. Starting from Blow Fly (2003), the style changes from a first person to a third person, omniscient, narrator. Events are even narrated from the viewpoint of the murderers. Before Blow Fly the events are seen through Scarpetta's eyes only, and other points of view only appear in letters that Scarpetta reads.

Cornwell shifted back to a first-person perspective in the Scarpetta novel Port Mortuary (2010).

Andy Brazil/Judy Hammer series

In addition to the Scarpetta novels, Cornwell has written three pseudo-police fictions, known as the Trooper Andy Brazil/Superintendent Judy Hammer series, which are set in North Carolina, Virginia, and off the mid-Atlantic coast. Besides the older-woman/younger-man premise, the books include discomforting themes of scatology and sepsis.

Jack the Ripper

Cornwell has been involved in a continuing, self-financed search for evidence to support her theory that painter Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. She wrote Portrait of a Killer—Jack the Ripper: Case Closed, which was published in 2002 to much controversy, especially within the British art world and among Ripperologists. Cornwell denied being obsessed with Jack the Ripper in full-page ads in two British newspapers and has said the case was "far from closed". In 2001, Cornwell was criticized for allegedly destroying one of Sickert's paintings in pursuit of the Ripper's identity. She believed the well-known painter to be responsible for the string of murders and had purchased over thirty of his paintings and argued that they closely resembled the Ripper crime scenes. Cornwell also claimed a breakthrough: a letter written by someone purporting to be the killer, had the same watermark as some of Sickert's writing paper. Ripper experts noted, however, that there were hundreds of letters from different authors falsely claiming to be the killer, and the watermark in question was on a brand of stationery that was widely available.

TV appearance

She made a brief appearance on the police procedural drama Criminal Minds in the episode "True Genius" as herself.

Legal issues

On January 10, 1993, Cornwell crashed her Mercedes-Benz while under the influence of alcohol. She was convicted of drunk driving and sentenced to 28 days in a treatment center.

Leslie Sachs case

Leslie Sachs, author of The Virginia Ghost Murders (1998), claimed there were similarities between his novel and Cornwell's The Last Precinct. In 2000, he sent letters to Cornwell's publisher, started a web page, and placed stickers on copies of his novel alleging that Cornwell was committing plagiarism. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted Cornwell a preliminary injunction against Sachs, opining that his claims were likely to be found baseless.

In 2007, during her libel suit against Sachs, Cornwell testified that Sachs had accused her in online postings of being a "Jew hater" and "neo-Nazi" who bribed judges, conspired to have him killed, and was under investigation by U.S. authorities. The court permanently enjoined Sachs from making defamatory accusations against Cornwell and awarded Cornwell $37,780 in damages to cover the costs of defending herself against Sachs' internet attacks.

Anchin, Block & Anchin

In 2004, Cornwell assigned management of her financial matters to New York-based Anchin, Block & Anchin, managed by principal Evan Snapper. Agreeing to pay the firm a base rate of $40,000/month, her lawyer later claimed that Cornwell had hired Snapper to insulate herself from her money due to her ongoing mental health issues, and that Snapper knew this and took advantage of her over her four-and-a-half-year relationship with the company.

Cornwell fired the firm after discovering in July 2009 that the net worth of her and her company, Cornwell Entertainment Inc., despite having above $10 million in earnings per year during the previous four years, was a little under $13 million, the equivalent of only one year's net income. After Cornwell filed the lawsuit, Snapper pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance regulations. The court case opened in January 2013, with Cornwell suing the firm for a combined sum of $100M. On February 19, a Boston jury awarded Cornwell US$50.9 million (£33.4 million).

Personal life


On June 14, 1980, shortly after graduating from Davidson College in North Carolina, she married one of her English professors, Charles L. Cornwell, who was 17 years her senior. Professor Cornwell later left his tenured professorship to become a preacher. In 1989, the couple separated, with Patricia retaining her married name after the divorce.

From 1991 to 1992, Cornwell was involved in an affair with Margo Bennett, a married FBI agent, after meeting her at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, where Cornwell was doing research for her Scarpetta novels. In 1996, the affair came to light after Margo Bennett's estranged husband, FBI agent Gene Bennett, was arrested for, and later convicted of, the attempted murder of his wife and the abduction of Margo's church pastor.

In 2006, Cornwell married Staci Ann Gruber, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard University. However, she did not disclose news of her marriage until 2007. Cornwell later stated that turning 50 had made her see the importance of speaking out for equal rights and spoke of how Billie Jean King had helped her come to terms with talking about her sexuality publicly. She lives with Gruber in Massachusetts.

Since childhood, Cornwell has been friends with the family of evangelist Billy Graham and his wife Ruth Bell, often serving as the family's unofficial spokesperson to the media. She also wrote an authorized biography of Ruth Bell Graham. Cornwell was previously a personal friend of former President George H. W. Bush, whom she referred to as "Big George", spending a number of weeks at the family's summer retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Health problems

Cornwell has in the past suffered from anorexia nervosa and depression, which began in her late teens. She spoke openly about her struggle with bipolar disorder, but in 2015 said that she was misdiagnosed.

Political views

Since 1998, Cornwell has donated at least $130,000 to the Republican Party, and has made additional individual contributions to Republican U.S. Senate candidates, including George Allen, John Warner, and Orrin Hatch. She has occasionally supported specific Democratic candidates as well, including Hillary Clinton, Nicola Tsongas, Charles Robb, and Mark Warner.

Cornwell has spoken negatively of the presidency of George W. Bush, saying, "I was supportive of young George W. 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."


Cornwell has made several notable charitable donations, including funding the Virginia Institute for Forensic Science and Medicine, funding scholarships to the University of Tennessee's National Forensics Academy and Davidson College's Creative Writing Program (the result of which is the Patricia Cornwell Creative Writing Scholarship, awarded to one or two incoming freshmen), and donating her collection of Walter Sickert paintings to Harvard University. As a member of the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital's National Council, she is an advocate for psychiatric research. She has also made million-dollar donations to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice for the Crime Scene Academy and to the Harvard Art Museum.


  • ECPA Gold Medallion Book Award in the Biography/Autobiography category for A Time For Remembering (1985)
  • Edgar Award, John Creasey Memorial Award, Anthony Award, and Macavity Award; for Postmortem (1991) (Cornwell is the only author to receive these awards in a single year)
  • Prix du Roman d'Adventures for Postmortem (1992)
  • Gold Dagger for Cruel and Unusual (1993)
  • Sherlock Award for Best Detective for the character Kay Scarpetta (1999)
  • British Book Awards' Crime Thriller of the Year for Book of the Dead (2008) (Cornwell is the first American author to receive this award.)
  • RBA International Prize for Crime Writing 2011 for Red Mist, the world's most lucrative crime fiction prize at €125,000.

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