Passion of crime Black and white

profile: Patricia Cornwell
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The Independent Online
"A writer, her lady love and a man with a grudge", as one tabloid put it, was a story to divert the attention of the most devoted England fan from the sports sections to the foreign pages. Even the normally sober Daily Telegraph gave the headline "Writer's FBI lesbian lover" to its story that best-selling novelist Patricia Cornwell was "at the centre of a violent love-triangle". For this was no ordinary love-triangle. It was the lesbian element, of course, that got the news boys excited. Men just can't accept that women are bent (really bent), preferring to believe that they just haven't met the right man. The love of a good man will straighten any woman out.

In case you did miss it, this is the story. Patricia Cornwell is a small, good-looking, blonde woman in her early forties who has become rich and famous through writing a series of excellent thrillers centred around the character of Doctor Kay Scarpetta, consulting forensic pathologist for the FBI and chief medical examiner for the state of Virginia. These novels, with their spare, compassionate prose, their graphic descriptions of death, destruction and psychopathic killing and their passion for detail, have been so successful - the first one Postmortem, published in 1990, won an unprecedented five awards - that Ms Cornwell now apparently owns houses in Virginia, Los Angeles, Mayfair and the Caribbean. She drives a Mercedes, has a personal shopper at fashionable Berdorf Goodman and employs a staff of 12, including a bodyguard, who all "adore" her. Her headquarters are called Cornwell Enterprises.

Last March, she signed a three-book contract with the US publishers G P Putnam for pounds 16m, with another pounds 2m for British rights. Her last book, From Potter's Field, which is to be made into a film directed by Peter Gruber (who made Rain Man and The Color Purple) sold more than 700,000 copies in hardback. Her seventh book featuring Kay Scarpetta, Cause of Death, comes out here in October.

But Ms Cornwell's road to riches has not been paved exclusively with gold. Like her creation, Kay Scarpetta, she was born in Miami (Scarpetta's mother still lives there and Cornwell makes much of the contrast between the warm South and the bleak North). Her parents divorced when she was seven and she grew up in a small town in North Carolina, in the same neighbourhood as the evangelist Billy Graham, whose wife she knew well. "It was a sheltered environment. I hadn't even heard of anybody killing anybody else," she has said.

Her biography of Ruth Bell Graham, A Time For Remembering, was published in 1983. Cornwell, still in her twenties, then wrote three "murder in the vicarage" mysteries which failed to find a publisher. Her marriage to Charles Cornwell, her college English professor and 17 years her senior, was no more successful and broke up as the books were rejected. He had become a Presbyterian minister - ironically, given recent events - and expected her to be a good minister's wife. She, in her own words, "had started hanging out with cops till two or three in the morning. I was bad."

After the break-up, Cornwell found herself sleeping on the floor of an unfurnished apartment, working at Virginia medical examiner's office. She has said in an interview: "I spent six years in the morgue and that's a long time." But, following the rapturous reception accorded to Postmortem (It appeared under the name P D Cornwell - first editions fetch high prices), she has gone from strength to strength. Her professional reputation has grown and her private life has remained private. Until now.

Last Sunday, a former FBI agent named Eugene Bennett telephoned Edwin Clever, a Methodist minister, and persuaded him to come to the Prince of Peace Methodist church in suburban Washington. When Clever got to the church. Bennett pulled a gun and forced Clever to telephone his wife, Marguerite Bennett, and convince her to come to the church. Mrs Bennett, also a former FBI agent, suspected something was wrong and took a gun with her. When Mrs Bennett got to the church, she fired at her husband. He escaped unhurt (as did the minister) and was eventually arrested after a four-hour siege at his home. His only comment was, "I don't want that woman to have my children". (The Bennetts have two daughters, aged seven and nine. After the gun-in-church incident, Mrs Bennett was granted temporary custody.)

"That woman", who has now been cited in divorce proceedings between the Bennetts, is Patricia Cornwell; she apparently met Mrs Bennett while doing research at the Quantico FBI academy where the latter was an instructor and hostage negotiator. Bennett secretly followed the two women and "watched them kissing and cuddling in cars"; later he searched the family's van" and found "lingerie, sex toys and lesbian pornography" which he took away "for safekeeping". But, when he "confronted" his wife, "she just laughed'', told him he was "square" and that he would "enjoy a threesome if he would only try it". Bennett also claims that his wife asked him "why it took [him] so long to figure it out" as she was "not the only one at Quantico doing this".

Well, well, well. It had to come - male gays have hogged the limelight for far too long. The idea that the FBI academy must be riddled with lesbians seems irresistible to the Telegraph's New York correspondent, Charles Laurence, who writes that "She [Marguerite Bennett] had taken a special interest in several young, female recruits whom she had instructed". Because Mrs Bennett has apparently had an affair with Ms Cornwell, she must necessarily be cruising all the "young, female recruits" with whom she comes in contact.

But if the story has been - inevitably - taken up as a stern warning to women to be on their guard against predatory queers, the allegation that Patricia Cornwell had a lesbian affair can surely come as no particular surprise. I can't remember how or even when I heard it talked about. True, she did not mention it in any of the few interviews she has given to date, but she makes, as far as I am aware, no secret of her inclinations, while declining to infuse her books with the kind of dreary militant feminism and cringe-making sex scenes that lesser-talented lesbian writers go in for.

She is too subtle a writer for that. However, readers hunting for clues might have deduced something from the fact that Kay Scarpetta's beloved niece, Lucy, who works at Quantico, is gay and has had more than one relationship with women from the academy; in more than one book, this leads to major problems and real danger.

A recurrent theme in the later books is both Scarpetta's tolerance/ acceptance of Lucy's sexual orientation and the difficulties that Lieutenant Pete Marino, with whom she works, has in coming to terms with it. Scarpetta herself is unequivocally heterosexual; her long-term lover, an FBI agent, was killed by a bomb in London and she was recently having an affair with Special Agent Benton Wesley. the FBI profiler at Quantico, who is married. Scarpetta seems not to be destined for marriage and children. At forty- something, she recognises that her work will always set her apart. An intimate physical relationship with the dead cannot fail to influence the nature of her relationship with the living.

It is almost impossible to underestimate the role of religion in America. In Cornwell's writing, it is possible to discern both the impulse that led her to write about Ruth Bell Graham and to marry a minister, and the impulse that drove her to work in a mortuary. She is a particularly moral writer: right and wrong, good and evil, black and white - there are no shades of grey in her books. Scarpetta is lone crusader against evil, an avenging angel holding a flaming scalpel in her hand. The only area where liberalism, if you like, creeps in is in matters of the heart; I am not sure if Cornwell - or even Scarpetta - feels that the affair with Benton Wesley is wrong. The particular burdens of her job mean that she can only be close to someone who understands her work and, if that person is married, so be it - with all the attendant heartbreak.

It is as if Cornwell has split her own personality into two and created Scarpetta and Lucy out of it. Scarpetta is having an affair with a married man; Lucy is gay. Cornwell has been having an affair with a married woman. Both characters are alter-egos.

Newspaper reports have made much of the similarities between Cornwell's fiction and the real-life drama that threatens to overshadow it. Those of us who have known that she is gay don't find it altogether surprising that her lover or former lover should have worked at Quantico. Most people form intimate relationships with the people with whom they associate; sex with a proper stranger is not for everyone. As for the American Gothic denouement in the Prince of Peace Methodist church involving the wonderfully named Edwin Clever, who was it who first said "Only in America..."?