Patricia Cornwell is born

Bestselling crime novelist Patricia Cornwell, creator of crime-solving medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, is born on this day in Miami, Florida.

Cornwell’s family moved to North Carolina when she was seven, shortly after her parents divorced. Her mother had a nervous breakdown when Cornwell was nine and tried to give the children away to evangelist Billy Graham and his wife, Ruth. The Grahams placed the children in foster care and kept an eye on them for years. Cornwell, who attended Davidson College in North Carolina and became a newspaper reporter in Charlotte, later wrote a profile of Ruth Graham, which she turned into her first book, a biography of Graham.

Cornwell married an English professor some 17 years her senior, who later became a minister. The couple moved to Richmond, Virginia, where Cornwell’s character Scarpetta would be based. The couple later divorced.

Hoping to become a crime novelist, Cornwell spent six years studying forensic science and working at the morgue. She wrote three novels between 1984 and 1988, all featuring a dashing, adventurous, and poetic detective hero, with a minor medical-examiner character named Kay Scarpetta. An editor advised Cornwell to focus on Scarpetta and to write grittier fiction based on everyday crime situations faced by the morgue. Cornwell wrote Postmortem, which was finally accepted by Scribner’s after seven other publishers rejected it. The novel won five major mystery awards that year and sold hundreds of thousands of copies in paperback.

Cornwell’s subsequent Scarpetta novels, including Cruel and Unusual (1993) and Cause of Death (1996), sold in the millions and have been translated into 22 languages, earning her multimillion-dollar advances. Her 19th novel featuring Scarpetta, Red Mist, was published in 2011.

Cornwell has also penned a handful of non-fiction books, including one that explores her theory–based largely on self-financed research–that Jack the Ripper was the painter Walter Sickert. Her hypothesis has drawn much criticism among historians of British art and experts on the famous serial killer.

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