Patricia Cornwell

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Patricia Cornwell was born Patricia Daniels on June 9, 1956. Her father, Sam Daniels, was a lawyer, and her mother, Marilyn Zenner Daniels, was a secretary. The family lived in Miami until Cornwell was five years old, when Sam Daniels left the family. Cornwell’s mother took her and her two brothers to Montreat, North Carolina. Several years later, Marilyn Daniels began a series of hospitalizations for depression, and she entrusted her children to evangelist Billy Graham and his wife, Ruth, who placed them with a family recently returned from missionary work in Africa.

Cornwell attended King College in Tennessee and transferred to Davidson College in Charlotte, North Carolina, on a tennis scholarship that she later gave up. She graduated in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in English. She began a two-year stint as a reporter for the Charlotte Observer. She found her niche as a crime reporter, and the North Carolina Press Association honored her with an award for her investigative reporting series on prostitution. In 1980 she married Charles Cornwell, an English professor seventeen years older than she. In 1981, Charles Cornwell left Davidson College to pursue a divinity degree at Union Theological Seminary. Cornwell accompanied her husband and worked with him to expand a newspaper article that she had written about Ruth Graham into a book published in 1983 as A Time for Remembering: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham. The book won the Gold Medallion Book Award for biography sponsored by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association.

In 1984, Cornwell began writing her first novel about a detective named Joe Constable. Although she had been a crime reporter, she had not experienced crime investigation from the viewpoint of the police. She consulted Dr. Marcella Fierro, a Richmond, Virginia, medical examiner, who hired Cornwell first as a part-time scribe to record autopsies and later as a full-time computer analyst, a position she held for approximately six years. Cornwell also worked as a volunteer police officer in Richmond and spent three years with homicide detectives on the 4:00 p.m. to midnight shift. Two more novels about Constable followed, and editors repeatedly rejected all three. Finally, Cornwell asked for advice from Sara Ann Fried, an editor with Mysterious Press who had written encouraging rejection letters. She suggested that Cornwell dump her male detective and focus on Dr. Kay Scarpetta, originally a secondary character.

Cornwell’s breakthrough came in the summer of 1987 when a series of killings gripped Richmond. One victim was a female physician. In a 1991 interview with Joanne Tangorra of Publishers Weekly, Cornwell denied studying the killings but described them as a springboard for thinking about how Scarpetta might cope with a similar situation. In 1988, Cornwell met Miami Herald journalist Edna Buchanan, herself a mystery writer, who suggested an agent for Cornwell’s newly completed...

(The entire section is 698 words.)