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Murder-Minded : Crime writer Patricia Cornwell isn't afraid to tackle the grisly. Her newest is 'Cause of Death.'

July 11, 1996|LINTON WEEKS | THE WASHINGTON POST

In the Richmond morgue, Patricia Cornwell is alive.

It's a busy Monday in early May, and there are a dozen bodies to be examined.

Cornwell smiles as her former supervisor and old friend Marcella Fierro, the chief medical examiner of Virginia, takes the gift from the box.

It's an autopsy saw. A gray $800 Stryker that looks like a hand-held mixer with a crescent-shaped blade on the end.

Fierro, a sturdy chain-smoker with short dark hair and soft features, has been performing autopsies for 23 years. She smiles. "Thank you, Patsy."

Swiveling her wrist, Fierro demonstrates how the blade can easily slice through human muscle and bone. She explains that the saw doesn't work too well on flesh, which is supple and forgiving.

"It's no good in the kitchen," she says. They laugh.

This is the world of Patricia Cornwell. It's a dangerous, sinister swirl of innocent victims, murderous monsters, decomposed corpses, unflagging forensic explorers and fanatical law enforcement officers who crave justice.

Where others might feel queasy, Cornwell is at home. Through her love of science and sensibility, she has developed a way to deal with depression, chaos and violence and to make millions of dollars in the process.

The author of seven crime novels featuring medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, Cornwell is at the top of her game. Her books have been published in 24 countries and have sold millions of copies worldwide. Cornwell Enterprises has offices in Richmond and Los Angeles where a staff of eight people oversees nearly every aspect of the author's life, from her personal needs--travel arrangements, bottles of Evian, cases of nutritional drink powder--to the creative content of all book covers and advertising, to negotiations for feature films.

In March she signed a three-book contract with G.P. Putnam's Sons for $24 million and $3 million more for British rights. Her newest Scarpetta novel, "Cause of Death," is out. She writes so fast, she's launching another series about a police officer and a newspaper reporter. The first of those, called "Hornet's Nest," will be out in February.

On the face of it, Cornwell is flying high. But, as in one of her novels, the more you dig, the more you discover. A forensic foray into Cornwell's past reveals a fascinating life, a complicated person and a lesson in law and order. It may also explain her quirky habits, her lavish lifestyle and her attraction to some really morbid things.

The examination begins, oddly enough, in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where more than 600 people have gathered to pay tribute to the Rev. Billy Graham and his wife, Ruth. It is the National Day of Prayer, and the Grahams are receiving the Congressional Gold Medal. It's an unabashed blending of church and state.

Turning the lectern into a pulpit, Graham preaches a stemwinder about human evil, random violence and motiveless malevolence.

The rapt congregation includes a large smattering of politicos--Bob Dole, Orrin Hatch, Chuck Robb. Paul Harvey is here. So are Pat Boone, Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford and other Christian celebrities.

On the row just behind the Graham family sits Patricia Daniels Cornwell.

Divorced, female, 39. Short brown hair. Penetrating blue eyes. Slim. Not tall. Two gold rings--signet and simple band--on left ring finger. Dark jacket, shirt and pants. Armani shoes. Gold cross on chain around her neck. Green leather-bound notebook in her hand.

Born in Miami to Sam Daniels, an appellate attorney, and Marilyn "Pat" Daniels, a secretary. Parents divorced. Mother and three children--Patsy and her two brothers--moved to Montreat, N.C., when she was 7. They lived two miles down the road from Billy and Ruth Graham.

When her mother was wrestling with clinical depression, Patsy and her brothers were farmed out to another family, missionaries back from the Congo.

"She was spunky," remembers Ruth Graham. "She'd go play ball with the boys at the park, then on her way home she'd stop by to see my mother." Graham's mother was an invalid and she was impressed that a young girl would take time with a sick, elderly woman.

*

As a freshman at King College in Tennessee, Patsy Daniels faced despair herself. She suffered from anorexia nervosa and was confined to the same Asheville, N.C., hospital where her mother had been. Soon after she was released, a lonely, confused and vulnerable Daniels went to lunch with Ruth Graham.

The evangelist's wife, who had always been impressed by Patsy's creative nature, gave her a leather-bound journal and told her she should start writing.

Patsy Daniels wrote, and to this day, Patricia Cornwell carries a leather-bound journal just about everywhere.

After recuperating in Montreat, Patsy Daniels transferred to Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., where she developed a crush on her English professor, Charles Cornwell. He was 17 years her senior. A few days after graduation, she dropped by Cornwell's house and gave him a present. They went to dinner, courted and were married.

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