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Patricia Cornwall lived through real-life drama

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The timing couldn’t have been worse — or better. Just as her seventh Kay Scarpetta thriller, Cause of Death, hit stores in early July, best-selling novelist Patricia Cornwell found herself embroiled in a personal crime story: A former FBI agent claimed that Cornwell had broken up his marriage by having an affair with his wife, Marguerite. The distraught agent, Eugene Bennett, took his wife’s minister hostage in his Manassas, Va., church, threatened to blow him up, and then lured his wife to the scene. A former FBI agent herself, Marguerite suspected a trap, and fired at her husband — who was then arrested and charged with a host of felonies.

But how has the brouhaha affected Cornwell’s sales? Not one whit, it seems. The book has held at No. 1 for three weeks, following the pattern of previous Scarpetta sagas. Bookstore managers across the country said the author’s fans seem oblivious to the hoopla. ”We’ve always had large crowds [at her signings], and this time was no different,” says Stephanie Powell, a manager at the Willow Lawn Barnes & Noble in Richmond, Cornwell’s hometown.

Her Cause of Death tour complete, Cornwell is already at work on her next novel (she has a three-book, $24 million contract with Putnam). She and the Bennetts — whom she met in 1991 while doing research at the FBI Academy — have refused comment. Eugene Bennett, being held without bond, faces a hearing Aug. 13 to determine whether there’s enough evidence to send his case to a grand jury. His lawyer, Jeffrey Gans, says, ”We’re going to look into all possible defenses,” adding that his client ”doesn’t have any recollection” about what happened. Could the publicity — and Cornwell’s fame — affect the outcome? Says CNN legal expert Greta Van Sustern, ”Courts do try to insulate themselves from such hue and cry. Of course, if you look at the O.J. trial, they’re not always successful.”

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