Patricia Cornwell: 'Powerful women are more likely to kill’
The doyenne of crime fiction, explains why her new book is filled with female psychopaths.
It isn’t giving too much away to reveal that all of the criminals in Patricia Cornwell’s new book – and there are several – are female. There is one who hammers nails into a child’s head, another who is a convicted sex offender, and a woman on death row for murdering a family as they slept. Then there is the mother who smothers her children and – my personal favourite – the woman who condemns her victims to long and painful deaths by Botox (she injects food with the botulinum toxin). Meanwhile, men are reduced to mere walk-on roles, emasculated, castrated – not literally, though this process does appear in other Cornwell novels – and cast as helpless husbands and ineffectual police officers.
Red Mist is Cornwell’s 19th Scarpetta novel, the one that will nudge her over the magical 100 million copies mark. It is also the book that coincides with her work finally hitting the big screen. Angelina Jolie has signed up to play Cornwell’s protagonist, Dr Kay Scarpetta, a former chief medical examiner of the state of Virginia and forensic consultant.
In previous novels Scarpetta has dealt with sexual sadists and serial killers who leave limbless corpses, but none have featured quite so many female psychopaths. The main killer in Red Mist poisons her victims, which Cornwell tells me “is very female”. She says this in a cool, clinical manner, matter-of-factly, as if poisoning people was the most natural thing a woman could do after having periods and growing breasts (I suppose this detachment must be what happens when you have worked in a morgue, spent much of your time shadowing forensics experts and frequently attended autopsies, as Cornwell has.) “[Poisoning is] a long, drawn-out death, so it’s diabolical, sadistic, psychological, which is a female thing. It’s an inversion of the maternal instinct to nurture.” Cornwell stirs her green tea with a manicured hand, served to her in the Savoy’s finest china.
Female killers being reasonably rare – rare enough for us to be amazed when Rose West or Myra Hindley were convicted and react hysterically when Amanda Knox was first placed under suspicion – it seems a bit much that there would be as many as four within the pages of one book. “Well, I think what you are going to see as society evolves is a lot less distinction between the crimes males and females commit,” says Cornwell when I mention this. “Murder is about power and the more powerful women get the more it will change the good that they do and the bad that they do. Equality will change our behaviour. I mean, we tend to do what we can get away with.”
Perhaps we should see Red Mist as a particularly twisted piece of feminist literature that says “Hey boys, you may be good at killing, but us women can murder too!”, and view Patricia Cornwell as a modern-day Germaine Greer let loose in a city morgue. Certainly, if a cartoonist was to draw a feminist, then they would probably come up with someone who looks a bit like Cornwell: she flies helicopters, keeps guns, is married to a woman and ostensibly cuts a tough figure – today she is wearing cowboy boots, leather jacket, ripped jeans and a belt with a pirate skull on the buckle (she collects skulls – of course she does).
These clothes, and the Botox she readily admits to indulging in, make Cornwell look hard. But an hour and a half in her company shows her to be ridiculously soft. She offers tea, apologises that she has a cold and reveals that she has spent the last few days “haunted” by the death of Natalie Wood. “I’ve seen what drowning looks like,” she says, “and I can reconstruct the actual mechanism of the death, and it’s a horrible way to go.” Being exposed to death hasn’t made her immune to it; if anything, she says the opposite is true. She has bodyguards with her, and is obsessed with security. “I think I have a much stronger emotional response to things in the news, because I know what they actually look like.”
Similarly, her rather crumby upbringing – her life contains almost as many twists and turns as one of her novels – doesn’t seem to have toughened her up; rather I get the sense of someone who is still vulnerable and more than a little angry at what has happened to her.
Cornwell’s father walked out on the family when she was five years old. It was Christmas Day; she says she wrapped herself around his legs to stop him from going, but he simply shrugged her off and went on his way. Shortly afterwards she was molested by a patrolman, which resulted in her having to testify in front of a grand jury. Her mother spent large periods of time in hospital, suffering from depression, and eventually the young Cornwell and her two brothers were placed in foster care.
At this juncture, things didn’t get much better. Her foster mother was, according to Cornwell, extraordinarily cruel, shouting at Patricia and force-feeding her (she later developed anorexia), not to mention locking the young girl’s dog in the basement to die of neglect.
Her neighbour was the philanthropist Ruth Bell Graham – married to the evangelist Billy Graham – and she nurtured Patricia, encouraging her to study English at college. I say that aside from Ruth, Patricia didn’t seem to have encountered many kind people in her formative years. “Hmm,” she says, looking away.
Perhaps that was why she fell so quickly for her college professor, Charles Cornwell, who she married shortly after she graduated. He was 17 years her senior. “Yeah, I think there was probably a father-figure thing going on there,” she says. They divorced after nine years of marriage, but are now great friends and he is her editor.
She has previously told interviewers that she was bisexual. How would she describe herself now? “I personally don’t call myself anything, though I know that technically one would call me gay. People make different choices at different times depending on how they feel about somebody. Maybe I’m bisexual. Maybe I was really gay back then and just didn’t know it.” Could she ever rule out being attracted to a man? “No,” she says, hooking her thumbs through her belt buckle. “But what I can say is that I can’t imagine being with anyone other than Staci.”
Dr Staci Gruber is a Harvard neuropsychologist who she met while researching a book. They were married in 2005 and the petite redhead, who has accompanied Cornwell on this trip to London, seems to have been the catalyst for the author finally finding peace with her sexuality. Patricia – or “Patsy”, as her wife calls her – kept it quiet for a long time, but was “outed” in 1997. Then, an FBI agent, Eugene Bennett, was jailed for 23 years for plotting to kill his wife, Margo, after discovering that she was having an affair with Cornwell.
“Oh, that was all blown out of proportion,” she says now. But she says she can’t forgive Mr Bennett, just as she can’t forgive her foster mother, or her father, who is now dead. I find this odd, given all the misery and destruction she has seen in her work – surely that should encourage her to heal any rifts? “When I say forgiveness, perhaps what I mean is accountability. I don’t hate my father, but I think the coldness and cruelty involved in him leaving… well that is a deliberate act of trying to inflict pain and I hold him accountable for that.”
Cornwell’s foster mother once wrote to her and asked that she stop talking to the press about their relationship. “She said she did the best she could, that she was dying. And I didn’t write back because I won’t forgive her, I’m sorry. I wasn’t going to let her off the hook because she was dying. To take a little kid who was nine years old, whose father has left and whose mother is in hospital, and to be sadistic to that kid… that is not forgivable. If I did that, I would expect to be held accountable too. I have a strong feeling that you should be responsible for what you do.”
I ask Cornwell why she chose to keep her married name. She thinks for a while and then answers bluntly. “I know it sounds funny, but I don’t think of my name as being me.” Later, Cornwell shows me the belt buckle featuring the pirate’s skull. “It’s pirate protection,” she says, softly. “It protects me from the pirates in life. The people who want to go away with all your earthly goods, and your soul if you let them.” And it occurs to me that however gripping her novels are, it’s her biography that will truly fascinate.
'Red Mist’ by Patricia Cornwell (Little Brown, £18.99) is out now.