Why more women will murder -- if they can get away with it
Patricia Cornwell, the doyenne of crime fiction novelists, reveals to Bryony Gordon why her new book is full of female psychopaths
Published 02/12/2011 | 06:00
It isn't giving too much away to reveal that all of the criminals in Patricia Cornwell's new book are female. There is one who hammers nails into a child's head, another who is a convicted sex offender, and one is on death row for murdering a family as they slept. Then there is the mother who smothers her children and -- my 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, 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".
"[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."
Female killers being reasonably rare 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. "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 twisted piece of feminist literature that says, "hey boys, you may be good at killing, but us women can murder too", and view Cornwell as a modern-day Germaine Greer let loose in a morgue.
Certainly, if a cartoonist were to draw a feminist, then they would probably come up with someone who looks like Cornwell: she flies helicopters, keeps guns, is married to a woman and cuts a tough figure -- today she is wearing cowboy boots, leather jacket, ripped jeans and a belt with a pirate skull on the buckle.
These clothes, and the Botox she 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, "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 upbringing 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 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 shrugged her off.
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 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 and she nurtured Patricia, encouraging her to study English. 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 for her college professor, Charles Cornwell, who she married after she graduated. He was 17 years her senior. "I think there was probably a father-figure thing going on there," she says.
They divorced after nine years, but are friends and he is her editor.
She has previously said 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. "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 seems to have been the catalyst for the author finding peace with her sexuality.
Cornwell kept it quiet for a long time, but was "outed" in 1997. 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," Cornwell 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."
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)