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.
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).
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.
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.