William Diehl, Best-Selling Author Of 'Primal Fear' and Other Thrillers

From News Services
Wednesday, November 29, 2006

William Diehl, 81, the best-selling author known for "Sharky's Machine" and "Primal Fear," both fast-paced thrillers that were made into box-office hits, died Nov. 24 at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. He had an aortic aneurysm.

Mr. Diehl, a former Atlanta journalist and photographer, wrote nine novels that appealed to popular tastes with plot lines fueled by murder, greed, romance and other forms of mayhem.

William Francis Diehl Jr. was born in Jamaica, N.Y., and served in the Army Air Forces during World War II.

After graduating from the University of Missouri, he moved to Atlanta in 1949 and joined the staff of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper. He got the job after staking out the lobby and waiting for Editor Ralph McGill to walk by.

"I introduced myself and told him about my situation," Diehl told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2002. "He asked me if I had been in the war. I told him I had been a ball turret gunner. . . . He said anybody who had gone through that deserved a job, so he hired me as an obit writer."

In 1960, he became the first managing editor of Atlanta magazine. He taught himself how to take photographs for his stories and later worked as a freelance photographer.

He met Martin Luther King Jr. in the mid-1960s as a photographer for the U.S. Information Agency. He was attacked one night in 1967 while accompanying King on a tour of Mississippi and had his throat slashed by two men armed with a straight razor.

He had no permanent job and was on his second marriage in 1974 when he turned 50. Someone had given him a party with an ice cream cake shaped like a typewriter, an allusion to Mr. Diehl's long-held dream of becoming a novelist. The cake, too pretty to eat, melted into a gooey mess, which struck Mr. Diehl as a metaphor for his life.

The next day, he sold all his cameras, borrowed $5,000 from his best friend and resolved to launch his best and final career.

While on jury duty some time later, he hatched the plot of "Sharky's Machine" (1978), which races around the globe from Italy to Hong Kong to Atlanta, where a detective stumbles into a complex web of extortion, sex and murder. Critics handed it raves. It was turned into a 1981 movie directed by Burt Reynolds, who also starred as Sgt. Tom Sharky. In a cameo role as a pimp who punches out a hooker in a jail cell, Mr. Diehl broke his finger.

"Primal Fear," which followed a similar trajectory from bestseller lists to big screen, introduced the character of Martin Vail, a high-profile defense lawyer who takes on a seemingly hopeless case of a young man accused of slaying an archbishop.

Some reviewers complained that his characters were not well developed and that the writing was clunky. "His sentences crawl across the page and die," John Coyne wrote in The Washington Post. Others said any shortcomings were outweighed by the riveting action and what New York Times reviewer Karen Ray called "an ending that is truly socko."

The movie based on "Primal Fear" was released in 1996 and starred Richard Gere and Edward Norton.

His last published novel was "Eureka," which came out in 2002. Somewhat of a departure from his earlier works, it is a historical thriller that covers the first four decades of the 1900s. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it "his best novel ever."

He concocted the violent scenarios in most of his books in the placid environs of Georgia's St. Simon's Island, where he lived for 20 years with his third wife, Virginia Gunn, a former Atlanta television reporter.

His marriages to Virginia Arnold Diehl and Catherine Clifford Diehl ended in divorce.

In addition to his wife, survivors include four children from his first marriage; a child from his second marriage; and eight grandchildren.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company