Samuel Hamrick Jr.; Diplomat Wrote Popular Spy Novels

Samuel Hamrick Jr., whose pen name was W.T. Tyler, drew on his work in Africa and the Middle East when writing his thrillers.
Samuel Hamrick Jr., whose pen name was W.T. Tyler, drew on his work in Africa and the Middle East when writing his thrillers. (1982 By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Samuel Hamrick Jr., 78, a retired Foreign Service officer who wrote thoughtful and engaging spy thrillers that critics occasionally ranked alongside the best of Graham Greene and John Le Carr¿, died Feb. 29 of colon cancer at his farm near Boston, Va.

Mr. Hamrick, who wrote under the name W.T. Tyler, drew on 20 years of experience as a State Department analyst in Africa and the Middle East. The pen name alluded to Wat Tyler, leader of a bloody peasant rebellion in 14th-century England. That name would be inappropriate, his British publisher told him, so he became W.T.

Critics praised his work from the beginning. Washington Post reviewer Jonathan Yardley said his fiction transcended the spy-thriller genre. In one of his reviews, Yardley described Mr. Hamrick as "a serious writer who is interested in more important matters."

Mr. Hamrick told the Washington Times in 1994 that he didn't consider his books spy novels. "It's four or five characters involved in the same predicament," he said.

Samuel Jennings Hamrick was born in Lubbock, Tex., and grew up in Louisville. He graduated from the University of Louisville in 1951 and did graduate work at Vanderbilt and Princeton universities. He served in Army counterintelligence from 1951 to 1953.

He joined the State Department in 1960, serving in Beirut and Canada before being posted to Africa. From 1967 to 1976, he was in Congo, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Scion of a family that traces its roots to 17th-century southern Virginia, he bought a 28-acre farm near Marshall after his retirement from the State Department in 1980 and then moved to the farm near Boston after his divorce.

He got up early, wrote until about 1 in the afternoon, and then got on his tractor and cut hay, said his companion, Nancy Ely-Raphael.

"Writing is how he stayed happy," she said.

He published his first novel, "The Man Who Lost the War," the year he retired.

Set in Berlin in the 1960s, the story revolves around former CIA agent David Plummer and his encounter with a Soviet agent. Although some reviewers found the book's plot convoluted, Post reviewer Ross Thomas called it "a spy tale with fine characterization, almost faultless dialogue, a cunning, twisting plot and a remarkable, nearly total sense of recollection of both time and place."

After two novels set in Africa, "The Ants of God" (1981) and "Rogue's March" (1982), Mr. Hamrick focused on Washington in "The Shadow Cabinet" (1984). According to Post reviewer Michael Kernan, it's "Washington as Babel: the gunk you would find at the bottom of the pot if you boiled down America. . . . "

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