A League of Her Own: Patricia Cornwell Mines Her Dark Side

Article excerpt

WHEN DEAD PEOPLE TALK TO PATRICIA Cornwell, she doesn't just listen, she takes notes. It's not Eleanor Roosevelt she communes with, it's anonymous stiffs, especially ones who met a particularly ghastly end. But the creator of the widly popular crime-novel series about Dr. Kay Searpetta, medical examiner, insists she's not ghoulish. "If I were just interested in dead bodies, I might have a funeral-home director as the main character. But it's the dead speaking, telling us what happened and telling us the way they lived, which usually leads up to the way they died. It's the mystery of all that." Just six years after Cornwell published her first novel, "Postmortem," communing dead has put her in the big leagues. Her new contract with Putnam--three books for a reported $24 million to $27 million--works out to about $8.5 million a year, the same salary that baseball's highest-paid player, Ken Griffey Jr., recently negotiated.

"Cause of Death," the seventh Scarpetta book, debuts at No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list next week, knocking out John Grisham's "The Runaway Jury." But success attracts scrutiny, and Comwell, who protects herself with an office staff she calls a "machine," is in the middle of a made-for-tabloid scandal. Former FBI agent Eugene Bennett alleges that in 1991 she began an affair with his wife, Marguerite, at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., where Marguerite was teaching and Cornwell was doing research. In divorce documents now under seal, but originally obtained by Washington radio station WTOP, Eugene claims he saw the two at "romantic candlelight dinners" and "hugging and kissing."

Virginia police allege that Eugene kidnapped his estranged wife's minister last month, threatening to shoot him and to blow up the church unless he called Marguerite to arrange a meeting. She showed up, cops claim, shot at Eugene and niissed. Charged with four counts of criminal behavior, Eugene is being held without bond in a county jail and undergoing psychiatric evaluation. (According to his lawyers, he thinks he has an evil alter ego, Ed, whom he locked in a garage.) Eugene declined to comment; NEWSWEEK could not locate Marguerite, and Cornwell won't talk about the case or the alleged relationship with Marguerite.

"My personal life is not anybody else's business," she said last week, sitting calmly in a Manhattan hotel suite, wearing jeans, a suede jacket, a "Cause of Death" T shirt and a cross. "I don't believe people should be defined by their sexuality," says Cornwell. "People can think what they want. There's nothing I can do." Still, "this sensational stuff," as she calls it, pales next to what she has experienced personally--or what she saw as a crime reporter for The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer and as a computer analyst in the Virginia medical examiner's office. Since she began writing best-selling crime novels, she says, "I've been stalked, blackmailed. I have a huge list of inmates who can't wait to meet me. You wouldn't believe half of the stuff I've been through. …