On this day in 1956, one of the world’s top-selling crime novelists, Patricia Cornwell, best known for her forensic pathologist character Dr. Kay Scarpetta, is born in Miami, Florida.
Cornwell, whose maiden name is Daniels, had a difficult childhood: When she was 5, her father, a lawyer, left the family. Afterward, Cornwell moved with her mother and two brothers to Montreat, North Carolina. There, her mother was hospitalized for mental illness, forcing Cornwell and her brothers to spend time in foster care. Cornwell graduated from Davidson College in 1979, married her college professor and became a reporter for the Charlotte Observer, eventually covering the police beat. She went on to work for six years as a technical writer and computer analyst in the chief medical examiner’s office in Richmond, Virginia.
After multiple rejections from publishers, Cornwell’s first novel, “Postmortem,” was released in 1990. The book features Dr. Kay Scarpetta, the brainy, murder-solving medical examiner. “Postmortem” was a hit, and Cornwell has since penned 18 other top sellers starring Scarpetta. Known for meticulous research and grisly detail in her writing, Cornwell attends autopsies and interviews forensic scientists and law-enforcement professionals to keep up with the latest procedures and technology. She’s also learned to pilot helicopters, shoot guns and scuba dive because her characters do. Her books have been credited with helping to inspire such TV shows as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “Cold Case.”
In addition to the Scarpetta series, Cornwell has written novels featuring journalist-turned-cop Andy Brazil and state police investigator Win Garano, along with several cookbooks and a children’s book. In 2002, the blockbuster author published “Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed,” based on her own intensive investigation into the notorious, never-captured 19th century London serial killer, who she believes was the British artist Walter Sickert.
Cornwell’s personal life has occasionally read like the pages of a crime thriller. In 1992, the writer, then divorced, had a brief affair with married FBI agent Margo Bennett. Four years later, Bennett’s estranged husband Eugene, an ex-FBI agent who blamed the affair for the breakup of his marriage, launched an (ultimately unsuccessful) plot to murder his wife. Today, Cornwell, whose crime fiction has earned her an estimated $100 million, travels with bodyguards and is known for her philanthropy, donating millions to forensic research and animal rescue, among other causes.