She didn't lose the plot, she became it

A thriller author's life can have more bizarre twists than any of her characters, writes Rebecca Fowler
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From the outset it had blockbuster saga written across it. A glamorous novelist attends an FBI training academy in the United States to research her next book. There she meets a dashing expert in hostage negotiation. Romance blossoms, a husband is spurned, jealousy grips him, shots are fired ....

But the recent events in the life of Patricia Cornwell, the fabulously wealthy American crime writer who has signed a pounds 16m deal for her next three forensic thrillers, are also a vivid example of the time-honoured tradition by which a writer's own life becomes more dramatic than his or her fiction.

It is a modern tale of passion brimming with intrigue: the FBI backdrop; a smattering of sex, madness and religion; the self-made heroine with homes across the world; and the twist when it emerges that Cornwell's lover is in fact a woman, Marguerite Bennett.

But as Eugene Bennett, Marguerite's husband and also a former FBI agent, was led off to prison following a shoot-out in his local church last weekend, it also emerged as a sobering tale of how real life can descend to levels of tragedy which, if found in a book, would cause it to be tossed aside as way beyond fantasy.

So how did it begin? The story opens with Patricia Cornwell, elegantly dressed in clothes picked out for her by her personal shopper at Bergdorf Goodman in New York, arriving at the FBI's Quantico Academy in Virginia.

Among the most knowledgeable FBI agents at the academy was Mrs Bennett, who soon became an invaluable source of information for Ms Cornwell's research. The writer is famous for her assiduous attention to detail in her best-selling books, including Post Mortem, which portray a dark world of crime through the eyes of her heroine, a forensic expert called Kay Scarpetta.

Research turned into candle-lit dinners, but it was not long before Mr Bennett's own training caused him to smell a rat. As his suspicions deepened, Mr Bennett decided to trail his wife and Ms Cornwell, a divorcee, on their local trysts. Sure enough, according to the divorce papers filed last weekend, he espied them "kissing and cuddling in cars". When he discovered some lingerie and lesbian literature in the family's van, he was told by his wife that lesbian romance was a regular feature of life at the FBI academy.

Ms Cornwell was well placed to take centre stage in the latest literary dangerous liaison. Only a few years ago her debts were piling up, and she was sleeping on the floor of an unfurnished apartment after her husband, a literature professor, left her behind with three unpublished novels. Now, after the publication of her first prize-winning novel in 1991, she drives a Mercedes, has her own staff, and is known as "Patsy" to her adoring fans worldwide.

But it was a tragic blow for Mr Bennett who was driven into a fit of angry brooding over his marriage and there were a series of stormy rows with his wife. They split formally in 1993 after Mrs Bennett accused him of stealing $17,000 from the FBI.

Ms Cornwell is the most recent in a long line of writers whose lives have been touched by violence and drama. Lord Byron died of a fever in Greece, where he is revered as a flamboyant revolutionary who helped fight off the Turks; Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan playwright, was stabbed to death as a spy in Deptford; and Salman Rushdie will be remembered as much for Islam's death threat against him as for his novels.

The romantic lives of writers have been equally dramatic. Lord Byron stomped over a trail of broken hearts before his own demise; Ernest Hemingway and Jean Paul Sartre left behind too many infidelities to follow; George Eliot enjoyed an enduring extra-marital affair; while Oscar Wilde's pursuit of the love that dare not speak its name drove him to an early grave.

Showing once again that life is far messier than even the most gruesome thriller, the Cornwell-Bennett saga came to a dramatic climax last Sunday, when the Bennetts came together for a shoot-out at the Prince of Peace Church in a local suburb.

Eugene Bennett was by now, according to his lawyer, driven by a malevolent alter-ego known to him as Ed. He allegedly abducted the minister, Edwin Clure, placed plastic packaging around him, which he claimed were explosives, and forced him at gun-point to lure his wife there by telephone. Mrs Bennett, convinced something was amiss, put a pistol in her handbag.

She slipped into the church by the back door and shot over the minister at her masked husband. He fled unhurt to conduct a four-hour siege from his home, claiming afterwards that only when he "was able to lock Ed in the garage" could he surrender to police.

It has been a harrowing time for all those involved, not least Ms Cornwell. Even the high-tech security systems guarding her homes in Mayfair, Virginia, the Caribbean, cannot prevent her feeling vulnerable, according to aides.

For a writer nothing could be more confusing than watching her life become larger than her art. In a recent interview when she was asked to compare herself to her heroine, Cornwell said: "Her spirit is mine; we are both fighters, driven professionals who find relationships difficult." She went on to say: "The only difference is that I'm not having an exciting affair like she is."

Whether Ms Cornwell had genuinely forgotten where real life ends and fiction begins only she knows. But whatever the ending of her own drama, in the tale of the author who did not so much lose the plot as become it, one thing is assured: the ending will not be as neat as in the book.