Patricia Cornwell Cornwell, Patricia - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Patricia Cornwell 1956-

(Full name Patricia Daniels Cornwell) American novelist and biographer.

The following entry presents an overview of Cornwell's career through 2000.

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. Cornwell's first novel in her Scarpetta series, Postmortem (1990), was the only novel to ever win the Edgar, Creasy, Anthony, and Macavity awards for best first crime novel, and the French Prix du Roman d’Aventure award all in the same year.

Biographical Information

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 Cornwell and her two brothers to Montreat, North Carolina. By the time Cornwell was nine, 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. In 1979 Cornwell graduated from Davidson College in North Carolina with a bachelor of arts in English. She began work as a police reporter for the Charlotte Observer and, in 1980, married Charles Cornwell, a Davidson College professor of English. She would later win an investigative reporting award from the North Carolina Press Association for a series of articles on prostitution. In 1981 Cornwell and her husband moved to Richmond, Virginia, so Charles could train to become a minister. During this period, Cornwell began working with her husband to expand a newspaper profile that she had written on Ruth Graham into her first book, A Time for Remembering: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham (1983), which won the Gold Medallion Book Award for biography from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. At the time, Cornwell was also working at the Chief Medical Examiner's office in Richmond and volunteering as a weekend police officer. Cornwell was divorced from her husband in 1990, the same year she published Postmortem, her first mystery novel. In addition to the critical awards she received for Postmortem, Cornwell also received the Golden Dagger award from the British Crime Writers Association for Cruel and Unusual (1993).

Major Works

The first novel in Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series, Postmortem, focuses on the rape and murder of several Richmond women by a serial killer. The plot follows the work of Dr. 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 ably displays her knowledge of the innovative technologies of modern forensic medicine to solve the case. The character of Scarpetta was inspired by the accumulation of the research and training Cornwell received while working in Richmond's Chief Medical Examiner's office. Scarpetta serves as the protagonist in several other Cornwell mysteries including Body of Evidence (1992), The Body Farm (1994), and The Last Precinct (2000). Throughout the series, Scarpetta struggles with balancing her career and personal life. She routinely solves mysteries using the most up-to-date forensic equipment and receiving help from Lt. Marino, an old police colleague, and Lucy, her computer-savvy teenage niece. During her investigations, Scarpetta attracts the attention of a psychotic serial killer named Temple Gault, who was introduced in Cruel and Unusual and became a recurring character in the series. Gault is cunning and sadistic, with a knowledge of forensic science that rivals Scarpetta's own. In Hornet's Nest (1997), Cornwell introduced a new protagonist, Judy Hammer, the chief of police in Charlotte, North Carolina. Hammer and her deputy Virginia West are assigned to protect a reporter/volunteer policeman, Andy Brazil, as he follows them around their daily patrols through the city. Hammer also serves as the heroine of Southern Cross (1998) and Isle of Dogs (2001). The Hammer mysteries are more character-driven and satirical than the Scarpetta novels, focusing less on scientific detail and more on the day-to-day experiences of a local police force.

Critical Reception

Critics have consistently praised Cornwell's attention to scientific detail in her Scarpetta novels, particularly in Postmortem and The Body Farm. Many reviewers have argued that Cornwell's attention to the minutiae of police work and her realistic portrayal of forensic investigations make her mysteries more plausible and engaging than the work of many of her peers. However, as the series has progressed, critical praise for the Scarpetta books has declined considerably. A number of critics have complained that the Scarpetta characters have become predicable and the plots formulaic. Nicholas Blincoe has commented that “the Kay Scarpetta of Black Notice (1999) is a Kay in decline, whose author doesn't control her with devices such as motivation or plausibility.” Cornwell's second series of mysteries—The Hammer books—has met with a mixed response by reviewers and audiences alike. Some commentators have criticized the Hammer characters for lacking depth, and noted that Cornwell's use of the third person narrative in the series makes the prose seem static and distant.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Time for Remembering: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham [with Charles Cornwell] (biography) 1983

Postmortem (novel) 1990

All That Remains (novel) 1992

Body of Evidence (novel) 1992

Cruel and Unusual (novel) 1993

The Body Farm (novel) 1994

From Potter's Field (novel) 1995

Cause of Death (novel) 1996

Hornet's Nest (novel) 1997

Ruth, A Portrait: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham (biography) 1997

Unnatural Exposure (novel) 1997

Point of Origin (novel) 1998

Southern Cross (novel) 1998

Black Notice (novel) 1999

The Last Precinct (novel) 2000

Isle of Dogs (novel) 2001

Charles Champlin (review date 11 February 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Champlin, Charles. “Bloody Sunday.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (11 February 1990): 5.

[In the following positive excerpt, Champlin discusses Cornwell's attention to scientific detail in Postmortem.]

Patricia Daniels Cornwell was a crime reporter on the Charlotte Observer who then became a computer analyst in the chief medical examiner's office in Virginia. Her only previous book was a biography of Mrs. Billy Graham. For her first mystery, Postmortem, she has created a protagonist, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, who is, conveniently enough, Virginia's chief medical examiner.

The police are confronting a serial rapist, following a forensic trial in which the computer is massively involved. Cornwell trots out her expertise in dazzling and occasionally bewildering fashion. But the specifics are fascinating, as work well-described always is, whether it's Dick Francis at the track or Amanda Cross on campus.

Dr. Scarpetta has a terrible time with the chauvinists around her, one of whom in particular is malevolently eager for her to fail. These passages have the ring of truth as experienced, and so does the portrait of an investigative reporter who abets the solving. (Cornwell has mastered the writer's lesson of starting with what you know best.)

Remarkably, the novel is about the tracking down, not the culprit, who turns out to be as anonymous as a bus rider, even though he nearly adds Scarpetta to his scorecard. The story is based loosely on an actual serial killer in Richmond, and Scarpetta evidently has a real-life model in the medical examiner's office. Whatever its inspirations, Postmortem is a first-rate first thriller, and I hope to run into Dr. Scarpetta again.

Joan Hamerman Robbins (review date 7 July 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Robbins, Joan Hamerman. “Living Dangerously.” Women's Review of Books 8, nos. 10–11 (7 July 1991): 32.

[In the following review, Robbins examines the role of the professional female sleuth in the mystery genre and how Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta fits into that tradition.]

I'm a novice reader of detective fiction, drawn in by my curiosity about the new women private investigators I'd heard about: Sharon McCone, Kinsey Millhone and V. I. Warshawski. Women professionals, all earning their livelihood by solving crimes. New independent, hard-working female role models.

As I've read in this genre, I've discovered that professional female sleuths...

(The entire section is 721 words.)

Charles Champlin (review date 20 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Champlin, Charles. “Criminal Pursuits.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (20 September 1992): 8.

[In the following positive excerpt, Champlin explores Cornwell's detailed use of forensic procedures in All That Remains.]

Patricia Cornwell has taken a controlling interest in the latest sub-genre of crime fiction: forensic procedurals. Cornwell's third novel about Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Richmond's chief medical examiner (All That Remains, is already a best-seller, offered by three book clubs and two audiocassette firms.

As before, the abundant forensic detail, rich this time in the eloquent revelations of microscopic fibers and DNA analysis...

(The entire section is 435 words.)

Eva Schegulla (review date summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schegulla, Eva. “Thriller.” The Armchair Detective 26, no. 3 (summer 1993): 118.

[In the following review, Schegulla offers a positive assessment of Cruel and Unusual.]

Dr. Kay Scarpetta performs an autopsy on Ronnie Joe Waddell, a convicted murderer executed by electric chair. The same night, a young boy is murdered and left in the same position as Waddell left his victim, ten years earlier. Shortly thereafter, a psychic with a connection to Ronnie Joe is murdered, and then, Scarpetta's assistant, Susan Story. Fingerprints from the sites lead back to the executed man.

To save her job and her reputation, Scarpetta enters a maze of scandal,...

(The entire section is 259 words.)

Bettina Berch (review date fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Berch, Bettina. “Cruel and Unusual.Belles Lettres 9, no. 1 (fall 1993): 37.

[In the following review, Berch compares Cruel and Unusual to Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs.]

Do not start this book when you are expecting house-guests for the weekend or the night before tax returns are due. Save it for your first week of giving up cigarettes or that day when every single thing in the house is broken. Save Cruel and Unusual for when you just want to be left alone in your room with a good book.

Vaguely reminiscent of The Silence of the Lambs, Cruel and Unusual is the story of Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a...

(The entire section is 383 words.)

Charles Champlin (review date 4 September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Champlin, Charles. “Criminal Pursuits.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (4 September 1994): 18.

[In the following excerpt, Champlin discusses Cornwell's use of scientific detail in The Body Farm, as well as the difficulties her female characters seem to have in maintaining romantic relationships.]

In The Body Farm Patricia Cornwell extends the adventures of Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Richmond's medical examiner, currently on detached service to lend the FBI some forensic know-how. A child in a remote North Carolina hill town has been brutally murdered, possibly by a serial killer named Gault, who narrowly eluded Scarpetta once before.


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Dinitia Smith (review date 11 September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Smith, Dinitia. “Death and Its Details.” Washington Post Book World 24, no. 37 (11 September 1994): 8.

[In the following mixed review, Smith praises Cornwell's use of scientific detail in The Body Farm, but criticizes the novel's lack of character development and grim tone.]

Child abuse. Serial killers. Death by autoerotic asphyxiation. Structure Query language for computers. A crime scene covered entirely in Super Glue. The Body Farm, Patricia Cornwell's fifth novel featuring the brilliant, feminist Chief Medical Examiner of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Kay Scarpetta, has them all.

After getting off to a jump start with an...

(The entire section is 977 words.)

Maureen Corrigan (review date 20 August 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Corrigan, Maureen. “Mysteries.” Washington Post Book World 25 (20 August 1995): 11.

[In the following mixed review, Corrigan discusses From Potter's Field and the weariness Cornwell's characters seem to be developing as the Scarpetta series progresses.]

The trouble with fictional serial killers is that, after a few appearances, they start to become known quantities, sort of like noxious relatives threatening another visit rather than the inscrutable, and therefore terrifying, phantasms of evil they should be. Even Hannibal Lecter, surely one of the most insidious embodiments of evil ever to appear in fiction or film, gets a laugh from his audience...

(The entire section is 715 words.)

Jonathan Coe (review date 1 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Coe, Jonathan. “Killers on the Loose.” London Observer (1 October 1995): 15.

[In the following review, Coe compares Stephen King's Rose Madder to Cornwell's From Potter's Field.]

‘Terror,’ wrote Stephen King in 1981, ‘often arises from a pervasive sense of disestablishment; that things are in the unmaking.’ Since this is also a sense that seems to dominate the best ‘literary’ novels of the late twentieth century, it's not hard to see why the horror novel is in the ascendant, and is being treated more and more seriously by the academic and critical establishments. With graphic images of warfare and terrorism reaching us every night on the...

(The entire section is 1029 words.)

Mary Scott (review date 13 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Scott, Mary. “The Knives are Out.” New Statesman & Society 8, no. 374 (13 October 1995): 32–33.

[In the following review, Scott offers a mixed assessment of From Potter's Field, comparing the novel to Minette Walters's The Dark Room.]

Gault is a pathological killer who arranges his dead victims in surreal poses. Dr Kay Scarpetta is a pathologist. Their cat and mouse game is brought to its conclusion in Patricia Cornwell's latest novel [From Potter's Field].

Why does Gault kill? Psychiatrist Anna tells Dr Kay “you are his mother and he brings you what he kills.” Why does Dr Kay, a qualified lawyer and doctor, persist...

(The entire section is 599 words.)

Mary Cantwell (essay date 14 July 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cantwell, Mary. “How to Make a Corpse Talk.” New York Times Magazine (14 July 1996): 15–17.

[In the following essay, Cantwell explores Cornwell's success with the Kay Scarpetta series and Cornwell's introduction of a new heroine, Judy Hammer, in Hornet's Nest.]

Judging by her jacket photograph, Patricia Cornwell is the spitting image of her lead character, the one who has just got her a $24 million advance on three crime novels and made her a bundle on the previous seven, the most recent of which, Cause of Death, was published this month. But Patricia Cornwell doesn't really resemble Dr. Kay Scarpetta, chief medical examiner of Virginia. Her...

(The entire section is 3222 words.)

David Sexton (review date 1 March 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sexton, David. “Brazil, Where the Nuts Come From.” Spectator 278, no. 8797 (1 March 1997): 29–30.

[In the following review, Sexton offers a negative assessment of Hornet's Nest, criticizing Cornwell's attempts at interjecting comedy into the novel and the growing self piety in her heroines.]

It's rarely the inventors who profit most from their discoveries. Thomas Harris is the genius of the modern thriller, if you take as a definition of genius expanding the very possibilities of a form. But, like the best innovators, Harris has not deigned to repeat himself. He has published only three novels so far: Black Sunday, an apprentice piece, in...

(The entire section is 1584 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 July 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ruth, A Portrait.Kirkus Reviews 65, no. 13 (1 July 1997): 999.

[In the following review, the critic offers a mixed assessment of Ruth, A Portrait.]

A syrupy but engaging biography of the famous preacher's irrepressible wife.

[Ruth, A Portrait] is bestselling novelist Cornwell's (Unnatural Exposure, p. 759, etc.) second attempt at a biography of her mentor, 77-year-old Ruth Bell Graham, wife of evangelist Billy. The first try, published in 1982, caused the very private Ruth to distance herself from Cornwell for eight years. It's hard to imagine what Ruth could find objectionable about this version: She comes across...

(The entire section is 307 words.)

Paul Skenazy (review date 20 July 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Skenazy, Paul. “Mysteries.” Washington Post Book World 27, no. 29 (20 July 1997): 10.

[In the following excerpt, Skenazy offers a negative assessment of Unnatural Exposure, faulting Cornwell for neglecting the scientific details that made her previous books so engaging.]

After a detour earlier in the year in Hornet's Nest, Patricia Cornwell returns to Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Virginia's Medical Examiner, who provides more lurid details about corpses and their meaning than most of us imagined we'd ever care to know. Unnatural Exposure begins with an unsolved case of mutilated bodies, some in Ireland and some in Virginia, that seem the work of...

(The entire section is 358 words.)

Peter Messent (essay date fall–winter 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Messent, Peter. “Patricia Cornwell's Unnatural Exposure and the Representation of Space: Changing Patterns in Crime Fiction.” Clues: A Journal of Detection 21, no. 2 (fall–winter 2000): 37–45.

[In the following essay, Messent explores the changing landscape of investigative fiction, citing Unnatural Exposure as a prime example.]

The representation of space, and particularly of city space, is of crucial importance in American hard-boiled detective fiction. In this article, I first map the normative relationship between the detective and that urban landscape which he or she inhabits, using the work of Walter Benjamin, Michel de Certeau and...

(The entire section is 3544 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Blincoe, Nicholas. “A Question of Time.” London Observer (28 February 1999): 12.

Blincoe offers a mixed assessment of Southern Cross, discussing Cornwell's shift from writing forensic mysteries to more lighthearted fare.

De Haven, Tom. “Hornet's Nest.Entertainment Weekly, no. 361 (10 January 1997): 50.

De Haven offers a negative assessment of Hornet's Nest.

Delman, David. “The Latest, but Not the Best, from Cornwell.” Philadelphia Inquirer (8 August 1999): H01.

Delman offers a negative assessment of Black Notice and...

(The entire section is 274 words.)