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This column by Jamie Saxon was prepared for the April 20, 2005

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Jamie Saxon: Patricia Cornwell

I thought my only brushes with celebrity were over after briefly

dating Chris Kennedy (one of Bobby’s sons) in college (his cousin,

Kara, was a classmate of mine at Tufts) and meeting Katherine Hepburn

at a professional theater I worked at one summer in New Hampshire.

Both experiences took place over 20 years ago.

But then in 2000 the gods were to smile upon me once more. While

working for a nonfiction book producer in Princeton I conceived an

idea for a cookbook based on the novels of New York Times bestselling

crime writer Patricia Cornwell. I was a big fan, having read all of

her books, which center on a character named Kay Scarpetta – the

blond, beautiful, brilliant chief medical examiner of Richmond who

solves heinous crimes by day and whips up outstanding Italian meals by

night for friends and family. I did a full analysis of every dish in

every novel, from veal stew to crab cakes, whipped up a proposal with

a full table of contents, and overnighted it in a basket with a tin of

my homemade biscotti to Esther Newberg, one of the most powerful

agents in New York. My boss laughed out loud when he heard Cornwell’s

agent was Newberg. "She’ll never call you back," he said. What a

killjoy, I thought.

The very next morning, my phone rang. My mouth full of bagel (as it

usually is at that hour), I answered, "Hew-o." A voice on the other

end of the line said briskly, "This is Esther Newberg. I loved your

biscotti. Let’s make a book." Well, I almost peed in my pants right

there and managed not to spit too much of my bagel out onto my desk.

"Great," I said, like I do this kind of thing every day. The ultimate

bennie? The recipe developer and I got to spend a weekend in Hilton

Head cooking with Cornwell in her home – an absolutely gorgeous little

number right on the beach with a brand new gourmet kitchen. She had

flown in the night before with various friends in her own helicopter,

which she pilots herself. While her friends lounged by the pool, we

cooked and cooked and at dinner she pulled out bottle after bottle of

wine that I know had three-digit price tags.

She turned out to be the nicest person in the world, with a heart the

size of Texas – and even gave me a copy of the manuscript of her next

Scarpetta novel, which I got to read before the rest of the world.

After learning that my father had died earlier in the year, she said,

"We’re going for a ride in my helicopter tomorrow morning. I’m going

to take you a little bit closer to your Dad." Once we were up in the

air, however, I spent the bulk of the excursion trying very, very hard

not to puke in her multi-million dollar custom-made chopper. I’m not

so good at the height thing.

The cookbook, "Food to Die For: Secrets from Kay Scarpetta’s Kitchen,"

turned out beautifully; as luck would have it, the release date was

the week after 9/11, but the book still sold well. So imagine my

surprise when I learned that a Princeton graduate had written "The

Complete Patricia Cornwell Companion." Dr. Glenn Feole, Class of 1974,

will give a talk and book signing at Princeton University Store on

Monday, April 25, at 7 p.m.

The book, published by Berkley, the trade paperback division of

Penguin Putnam, Cornwell’s publisher, is considered "official,"

meaning it has Cornwell’s blessing. I had to talk to this Feole guy. I

wanted to know, did he pee in his pants when Newberg said yes? Did he

almost puke in her helicopter? Then again, did he even meet Cornwell?

Turns out Feole (pronounced Fee-OH-lee), 53, is an unassuming

pediatrician who works in a clinic for the underserved in South

Carolina, the last person in the world you would think would be able

to pull a book like this off. But, like my experience, the reason it

worked is because he simply just did it, without looking past the

pencil on his page.

A second generation Italian, Feole was born in Hartford, Connecticut,

and raised, with his three siblings, in Westerly, Rhode Island, and

St. Louis. His father, the first in his family to go to college, was a

business manager for Monsanto, then owned his own company. His mother

was a homemaker and very creative in the arts.

Feole attributes his interest in medicine to two key people in his

life. "I have asthma, and back in the ’50s, I had this wonderful

doctor who would make house calls. When I would wheeze, he would come

over and give me a shot of adrenaline from a glass syringe. He had a

big black doctor’s bag. I thought, what a wonderful way to spend your

life, helping people."

Raised a Catholic, Feole attended a Jesuit high school in St. Louis

where, he says, he met the second most influential person in his life.

"Father O’Brien and I would talk about philosophy and religion. The

Jesuit life is a life for others. He made me aware of looking in that

life."

At Princeton, Feole was pre-med but also studied philosophy under

Professor Walter Kaufmann, writing his thesis on Sartre’s "Being and

Nothingness." "I have a renaissance taste in life," says Feole.

"Pediatrics is my passion but I love the arts, music, and philosophy."

Even after being accepted at the University of Cincinnati College of

Medicine, he deferred his medical studies to play bass in a jazz band.

He remained an avid reader and, seeking a life in public service, he

earned his medical degree in 1982, then entered the public health

sector in St. Louis, figuring he’d be killing two birds with one stone

– helping others and paying back his formidable student loans from the

government. Drawn to Paterson, New Jersey, the hometown of William

Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, Feole spent two years there, from

1985 to 1987, also working in public health. It was there that he took

his first step towards his first brush with celebrity.

"You know that famous picture of Mother Theresa and Diana? Well, I was

there the day before that picture was taken." Feole had gone to a soup

kitchen in Newark run by the Sisters of Charity, who had been trained

by Mother Theresa. "I spent several hours in the church, which had

bare floors, praying. Then one of the sisters came to me and said,

would you be interested in meeting Mother Theresa?" He left his phone

number with the nun and almost forgot about it. Months later, Feole

moved to back to his home state of Connecticut, and after two years

working at Norwalk Hospital in neonatology and for two large pediatric

groups, opened a solo practice where he saw patients in his home – and

made house calls. "I was in heaven. My 3,000 patients were like my

family."

One day he saw on the news that Mother Theresa was in the Bronx. Then

he got a call from the nuns who apologized and said they had lost his

phone number but then found it. Could he come to the church in the

Bronx at 5 a.m. the next morning? "When I got to the front of the

line, they said there was no more room in the church," says Feole. But

then one of the sisters brought him around the back and wedged him

into a spot. "When I looked up, I saw that I was right behind Mother

Theresa’s wheelchair. After the Mass she blessed me. I knew I wanted

to model my life on her."

The advent of managed care was the end of Feole’s solo practice, which

he had run for 11 years. He moved his wife, Tina, and their four

children to Richmond, where his sister lives. Before he left, a

patient pressed a Patricia Cornwell book into his hand. "Richmond.

That’s where my favorite author is. I’ve read all of her books."

He didn’t have a job for the first few months. "I had no control. I

just read – three to four books a week. We don’t have a TV. I just

read the classics." And after a trip to the Edgar Allen Poe Museum, he

started reading mystery novels, including all of Cornwell’s novels.

Almost on a whim one day, he opened the Yellow Pages and phoned the

medical examiner’s office and asked if they needed someone to work as

a medical examiner. As luck would have it, they had a paid part-time

position. "The smartest people in medicine are pathologists," says

Feole. "Every fourth night I’d be on call, and get 10 to 15 calls a

night from all over central Virginia – any car death, suicide, or

murder." Ironically, he worked for Marcella Fierro, the medical

examiner on whom Cornwell’s main character, Kay Scarpetta, is based.

(Cornwell, who worked for a time for Fierro as a computer analyst,

pioneered the idea of crime stories based on forensic pathology –

which have led to the immense popularity of television shows like the

CSI franchise, Cold Case Files, and Crossing Jordan.)

"I loved the intellectual challenge of it," says Feole of the job.

"You go to the (crime) scene, you take pictures, and present the cases

the next morning. Dr. Fierro was like Sherlock Homes. She would teach

me and teach me and teach me. I really was taught by Kay Scarpetta."

Is Fierro tall, blond, and beautiful like Kay? Not exactly. "She’s a

grandmother, shorter, but she’s Italian," says Feole. "She smokes and

she’s a riot."

He remembers one case, which he determined to be a suicide. After all,

the victim was anxious and on antidepressants. Fierro just laughed.

That analysis wouldn’t fly. "Feole," she said, "everybody’s anxious

and depressed."

Feole says he looked at his one-year stint in the morgue as a test of

his faith. "I wanted to see it as a Catholic – and as a doctor, to see

how I would respond to daily death and pathos. I wanted to go there

and confront life." Ultimately, Feole says he had a hard time handling

it and would consume himself in reading mystery novels, taking copious

notes in the margins and jotting down interesting quotes. He was a

statistical freak. "I calculated that in one year, I saw 1,000 dead

bodies." In his Cornwell book, he would later dedicate a chapter to

statistics, calculating that there was an average of 6.7333 deaths in

each of her first 15 novels.

He met Cornwell just once, passing her in the hall of the morgue.

Fierro introduced them. "I just said hello," says Feole, only later

realizing that he had met the author of those bestselling novels.

His statistical mind never slept, and he cranked out a manuscript on

the mystery writer Lawrence Block. In search of three out-of-print

Block books, he went to Otto Penzler’s famed Mysterious Bookshop in

Manhattan, a tiny two-story building at 129 West 56th Street, wedged

in between two skyscrapers. He struck up a conversation with Sally

Owen, an employee, who climbed the store’s spiral staircase to the

second floor, quickly found the three books, and asked, by the way,

why are you writing this book? She insisted on seeing the manuscript.

After much resistance, Feole finally agreed to send it to her. Four

months later, Feole got a call on his answering machine – from

Lawrence Block ("Larry" to the Mysterious Bookstore clan). He said, "I

love your book."

Block’s agent, Marty Greenberg, sold it to Cumberland House. By this

time, Feole had taken a job at Pediatrics of Batesburg-Leesville, a

satellite clinic of Eau Claire Cooperative Health Clinics of Columbia,

South Carolina, which provides medical services for the underserved.

"It’s a gift to me to do this," says Feole. "Many of my patients have

never seen a doctor. I make house calls to trailer parks now, not the

mansions of Westport." He lives in an apartment during the week,

traveling each weekend back to Richmond where his wife and youngest

daughter, Molly, now 15 and in high school, live.

Then Feole got the idea to do the Cornwell book. "I dropped the

manuscript off at her headquarters in Richmond," he says. "Then her

secretary called and said, you have to come pick it up." They couldn’t

accept unsolicited manuscripts. So Feole had Greenberg submit it to

Putnam’s and Cornwell Enterprises, which bought it for a six-figure

advance. Feole says, "The vast majority (of the advance) went to

everyone else – Cornwell got half, Esther Newberg got a percentage, my

agent got a percentage."

The book was published on January 4, with an initial print run of

50,000. The publisher and Cornwell Enterprises had complete editorial

control but Feole says he can’t see that they made any significant

editorial changes – they just added true crime writer Don Lassetter as

a co-author, apparently with the hopes that his name, more

recognizable than Feole’s, would increase sales. The book includes a

brief Cornwell biography; character portraits; photos of Cornwell,

places like an autopsy room and forensics lab, and tools of the trade

like a bullet recovery tank; medical terminology including lay

explanations of terms like "algor mortis" (the cooling of a body after

death) and "dextro head" (someone who abuses over-the-counter cold

medicines containing opiates); and forensic shop talk – the low-down

on stuff like blood splatter, fingerprints, and time of death. It is

an astonishingly comprehensive amalgam of facts and minutiae, which

undoubtedly Cornwell fans will lap up like a kitten that has fallen

into a bowl of cream.

There is even a chapter on celebrities. In "Unnatural Exposure,"

Scarpetta is depressed and tries to forget her problems by watching

television. "I watched the Today show, which I ordinarily never got to

do. Martha Stewart was whipping up something with meringue while I

picked at a soft-boiled egg…I could not eat."

While Feole did not interview Cornwell for the book, he did interview

Fierro. He says: "I asked her, ‘Whatever happened to the good old days

of killing for revenge?’ The cause of most murders today are psychotic

or sexual." In her signature matter-of-fact style, Fierro simply

replied, "People are just irritable today."

"The Complete Patricia Cornwell Companion," book talk and signing with

Dr. Glenn Feole, Princeton, Class of 1974, Monday, April 25, 7 p.m.,

Princeton University Store, 36 University Place. 609-921-8500, ext.

238 or www.pustore.com.


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