Earlier this year it was announced that Patricia Cornwell, America’s newest Queen of Crime, had defected from Scribner (the publisher who ‘discovered’ her) to Putnam. In defiance of trade courtesy, Cornwell bad-mouthed Scribner unmercifully on leaving: they had never pushed her books hard enough, she was reported as claiming, treating her like some ‘midlist author’. She promptly infuriated her new publisher by divulging precise details of their deal to her local paper in Richmond, Virginia. Putnam wanted to leak the figures in their own good time and in places of their choosing, as part of a long-term promotion campaign for their expensive new acquisition. Cornwell’s pre-emptive disclosure showed her belief that Putnam’s record-breaking sum was a mark of her achievement, not their largesse.
In the six years since her first thriller appeared, Patricia (‘Patsy’) Cornwell had come a long way. Scribner acquired the first Kay Scarpetta novel, Postmortem (written in the mid-Eighties, turned down by seven publishers, revised in the late Eighties, published in 1990), for $6000. From Potter’s Field, the sixth Scarpetta novel and Cornwell’s last for Scribner, was published in 1995. Her agreement with Putnam for three more Scarpetta mysteries guaranteed her $24 million for the North American rights. British rights were disposed of to Little, Brown and their paperback subsidiary Warner Books for a reported £2 million. A film of From Potter’s Field is in production. An exultant Cornwell described the Putnam deal as ‘the biggest ever for a woman’, which it may not be (Danielle Steel is more discreet about her advances). A list of the 25 all-time bestselling mystery titles drawn up by USA Today in March listed six Scarpetta titles, with The Body Farm (1994) at number one. In July 1996 Cause of Death was the bestselling hardback novel in America, From Potter’s Field the bestselling paperback in the UK.
Scribner’s initial payment was fair. Cornwell had no track record as a mystery writer, or any kind of writer come to that. She was a 35-year-old divorcee who in 1983 had published a hagiography called A Time for Remembering about the evangelist Billy Graham’s exemplary wife. Presumably Cornwell was encouraged in the task by her spouse, 17 years her senior, her former college teacher, later to take the cloth himself. After their separation, Patricia Cornwell worked for six years as a computer analyst in the Chief Medical Examiner’s office in Richmond, Virginia, where she met Dr Marcella Fierro, the model for Kay Scarpetta (Fierro is the dedicatee of Cruel and Unusual, 1993, with the epigraph: ‘You taught Scarpetta well’). She was also a ‘prize-winning’ crime reporter for the Charlotte Observer. Which prizes she won is not recorded – almost all the facts about her life come from a few self-serving interviews.
There was nothing in Postmortem to indicate anything other than a modest break-even performance in a competitive field. Nor is there anything outstandingly innovative about Cornwell’s narrator-heroine. Kay Scarpetta is a hardboiled, chain-smoking (at least up to Cruel and Unusual), whisky-drinking, lippy female detective with a core of deep feminine sensuality. She is cut from much the same cloth as Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. It was a woman editor at Mystery Press who, in rejecting the manuscript, advised Cornwell to change the sex of the male hero-narrator (Joe Constable) of the early draft of Postmortem. In the late Eighties this was flavour of the month advice. Another thing she did in the Eighties was to act as a ‘volunteer policewoman’, cruising in patrol cars in a semiofficial capacity.
Judging by their initial estimate and handling of the novel, Scribner thought Postmortem was good enough for their imprint but otherwise a run-of-the-mill effort. They were wrong. The novel went on to win an unprecedented five major prizes in its first year and made the New York Times bestseller list. From a standing start, Patricia Cornwell became a one-woman fiction factory, and a cult. She has produced seven Scarpetta novels since 1990 – a knackering rate of work which she evidently intends to continue. The books form a crime soap opera: characters, situations, messy relationships and serial killers have been carried over from one novel to the next. Chronology is erratic. Over the seven novels Scarpetta’s beloved niece, Lucy, has grown from a pudgy ten-year-old schoolgirl to a 23-year-old FBI field agent, the first woman ever to serve in the agency’s élite HRT (Hostage Rescue Team). Meanwhile Aunt Kay and her faithful sidekick Pete Marino have remained a sexy 40 and a seedy 50 respectively. But Marino has risen from sergeant in the Richmond Police Department to a captain attached to VIPAC (don’t ask), and in the process has lost his wife Doris to a realtor in New Jersey. His ‘prostrate’, as he calls it, is nowadays in very bad shape and if he doesn’t cut down on the saturated fats he will not see the tenth instalment. Scarpetta (motto: ‘paranoia is a healthy condition’) has deteriorated from being a jumpy woman to a full-blown nut.
Sara Paretsky tells a story of how, after selling the film rights to her V. I. Warshawski character, she was phoned up by a middle-ranking official at Disney, who informed her that he wanted to talk to her about ‘a property with which you were once connected’. It’s reassuring that the studio went on to produce a lousy film. Cornwell clearly does not intend to become disconnected from her literary property (she is an executive producer and screenwriter for the film of From Potter’s Field), but her awkwardness goes beyond assertions of authorial independence. Many American booksellers would rather not have Patricia Cornwell drop by, even though she would certainly sell a ton of product. ‘We invited her in for a book signing once,’ a California owner recalls, ‘and before she would come into the store, her two bodyguards conducted a security sweep of the premises, in case anyone had showed up with an Uzi, I guess. She was rude and demanding from the moment she walked in. We would never have her back.’
Cornwell travels with a personal entourage of 12 people – including the obstreperous bodyguards with whom she communicates by two-way radio (‘Unit One to Unit Two, do you copy?’). Her financial interests are now managed by a corporation, Cornwell Enterprises, which stonily declines to reveal any information about its client. She is famous for the elaborate security arrangements at her four homes, in Mayfair in London (the location can be worked out from Chapter 14 of her new novel, Cause of Death), in Los Angeles, in the Caribbean and in her hometown in Virginia, where she bought up adjoining lots to create a DMZ between herself and any neighbours wanting to be neighbourly. Her houses are reported to be bristling with motion detectors, CCTV cameras and ‘stockpiles of guns’. Yet all this security does not appear to make her feel secure: she was observed by a journalist to be carrying two pistols in her handbag. When asked why, Cornwell cited her fear of stalkers and crazed fans. There had been a copycat murder in Florida derived from Postmortem (in which the serial killer makes his final assault on Scarpetta). Prisoners regularly write her letters, promising to visit when they get out.
Cornwell’s anxieties are reflected in Scarpetta, who is never without her trusty sidearm. It rests beneath her pillow at night, and in her handbag or stuck in the gap between the front seats of her Mercedes 500E by day. Reading these novels is an education in the finer points of guns and ammo. If you want to know what a Hydra-Shok copperhead .357 does to soft tissue and organs read All that Remains. In the early novels Scarpetta favours a Ruger .38 with Winchester silvertip ammo, in the later ones she has switched to a Browning 9 mm with a customised Birdsong finish. In her garage gunsafe, we learn in From Potter’s Field, she keeps two Remington shotguns, a Glock 9 mm, a Smith and Wesson and a Colt. ‘I could not deny,’ Scarpetta admits, ‘that by normal standards I owned too many guns.’ She is more often on the firing range, practising markmanship with Marino, than at the sports club with her tennis instructor, Ted, or in the consulting-room with her shrink, Anna.
Over the course of the novels Scarpetta moves house to one which has fewer neighbours and more burglar alarms. When she sees the new house Lucy wryly says: ‘You’ve got cameras in your doors, motion sensors, a fence, security gates and what else? Gun turrets?’ The criminals in Scarpetta’s world are prowlers, stalkers and intruders. And they always come to visit her, sooner or later. She regularly blows them away but the ‘squirrels’ (as Marino mysteriously calls them) keep coming back.
Some sensational information about Cornwell has recently entered the public domain and could explain some of her behaviour over the last few years. On 22 June 1996 a Methodist minister, the Rev. Edwin Clever, was taken hostage in his suburban Washington church by a gun-wielding man wearing a ski mask. The intruder strapped what he claimed were explosives to Clever’s body and ordered him to summon a woman in his congregation, Marguerite Bennett, to the church. She was the hostage-taker’s estranged wife, it later emerged. Mrs Bennett arrived but prudently brought a firearm with her. Churchgoing in DC is not an activity Philip Larkin would write poems about. There was a violent confrontation between the Bennetts, a shot was fired, and Eugene fled the scene. He was picked up after a four-hour armed standoff at his home. Among the few coherent things that Bennett was reported as saying after his arrest was that he did not want ‘that woman’ to get control of his two daughters.
Further details emerged. In his divorce papers (leaked to a local newspaper and radio station, who broadcast their contents) Eugene Bennett had accused his wife of conducting a six-year-long affair with Patricia Cornwell (‘that woman’). In the early Nineties the Bennetts were both FBI agents. Marguerite had been an instructor at the agency’s Quantico Academy location which features centrally in all the Scarpetta novels. Eugene claimed that the relationship between Cornwell and Marguerite Bennett had been kept secret from him for a couple of years before he became suspicious and employed his professional skills to trail the lovers. He observed, he alleged, candlelight dinners and discovered lesbian paraphernalia in his wife’s private effects. When he confronted Marguerite with his discoveries she allegedly taunted him for being a ‘square’. They separated. She then snitched on him to his FBI employers for padding his expense accounts by $17,000, which led to a one-year prison sentence, the ruin of his career, the forfeiture of his professional benefits and of any custody rights to his children. A criminal case looms (the first hearing was in mid-August), and Eugene Bennett’s defence on five criminal charges will pivot on mental instability provoked by his wife’s flagrant infidelities with a public figure.
Cornwell’s readers will be revisiting the romantic subplots of her books. In the novels from Body of Evidence onwards, Kay is conducting a messy affair with ‘silver-haired’ Wesley Benton (Scarpetta has a weakness for older men), chief of the FBI’s profiling (‘ISU’) unit at Quantico. The affair blossoms and wilts; most recently it is on again, and Wesley has at last separated from his wife. Meanwhile, in the last two novels Lucy has been conducting a furtive affair with another agent at Quantico, called Janet, whose parents are raising hell. Scarpetta is non-judgmental about this (unlike Marino, who loathes what he calls ‘fagettes’). ‘The older I get,’ she says in Body of Evidence, ‘the more I am of the opinion that love can be experienced in many different ways.’
To recover Putnam’s $24 million the forthcoming Scarpetta books must appeal to the broad middle section of the market. If Cornwell is identified as an aggressive, family-destroying lesbian, she may turn off a whole sector of sexually conservative male readers. On the other hand, the newspaper stories may have the same stimulating effect on long-term book sales as the publicity generated by Agatha Christie’s disappearance in 1928. More worrying, perhaps, is the suspicion that the golden formula may be wearing thin. In the penultimate volume published in the UK, From Potter’s Field, Scarpetta leaves her provincial beat to pursue her old enemy, Temple Gault, to New York. In Cause of Death, she saves the world from nuclear destruction at the hands of international terrorists in alliance with American militias. These enlargements of territory and Bond-like feats represent a distinct change in Cornwell’s modus operandi. Cause of Death triumphed in the US in July when its first million-copy printing cleared in a couple of weeks. It remains to be seen whether Cornwell’s British readers like the new-look Scarpetta. If they don’t there is always the first non-Scarpetta mystery, Hornet’s Nest, promised in America in February 1997. It will feature a woman police chief. The eighth Scarpetta novel, Unnatural Exposure, is written, and will appear probably in late 1997.