Anthony Price, a British journalist who, in his spare hours, wrote 19 novels that drew deeply from history and are considered among the finest spy thrillers of their time, died May 30 in London. He was 90.
His death was first reported in British newspapers, including the Oxford Times, where Mr. Price worked for more than 30 years. He reportedly had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
For years, Mr. Price wrote reviews of crime fiction and military history before combining the two interests in his novels. He published his first thriller, “The Labyrinth Makers,” in 1970.
In that book, he introduced Dr. David Audley, a character who would appear in most of his books. A scholarly World War II veteran who was trained as a medieval historian and archaeologist, Audley became a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs for a British intelligence agency. Inevitably, and reluctantly, he found himself caught up in cloak-and-dagger engagements during the Cold War.
“He was not a field man, never had been and never wanted to be,” Mr. Price wrote of Audley. “The back room among the files and the reports was his field.”
Other characters recurred throughout Mr. Price’s novels, most notable being Col. Jack Butler, who became Audley’s boss, and two other operatives, Hugh Roskill and Elizabeth Loftus.
“I wanted to have a repertory company of characters,” Mr. Price said in a 2011 interview with Nick Jones for the blog Existential Ennui.
By weaving historical elements into his plots, from Roman and Arthurian times to the American Civil War and World War I, Mr. Price sought to show how modern-day problems can have unexpected connections to the past. As much as people had tried to bury the past, it seeps through time and reappears, Mr. Price wrote, “like the scar of a wound too frightful to be displayed.”
Critics also admired his use of dialogue as a crucial way of advancing his stories.
“You reveal character not by the author saying anything,” he told Existential Ennui, “but by the character saying something, or doing something.”
His body of work was considered almost on the same level as that of John le Carré, the acknowledged master of the spy novel.
“Mr. Price writes thrillers for grown-ups,” critic John Gross wrote in the New York Times in 1986. “He does not yet enjoy the same degree of fame as John le Carré, Len Deighton or Frederick Forsyth; but he can more than survive comparison with any of them.”
One of Mr. Price’s most acclaimed novels was “Other Paths to Glory” (1974), in which Audley investigated the mysterious deaths of several historians whose research on World War I became fatally intertwined with a modern-day nuclear summit.
For his research, Mr. Price walked across European battlefields and interviewed veterans of World War I. “Other Paths to Glory” won Britain’s Gold Dagger award as the year’s top crime novel, beating out one of le Carré’s best-known books, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”
The novel was ranked by London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper as one of the all-time 20 best spy novels.
Anthony Price was born Aug. 16, 1928, in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, England. His father was a businessman in India, his mother an artist who died when her son was 7. Mr. Price was raised largely by an aunt.
He served in the British army in the late 1940s before studying history at the University of Oxford. After graduating in 1952, he stayed in Oxford as a reporter and editor at the Oxford Times newspaper.
In the 1950s, Mr. Price began reviewing crime fiction and became such an authority that the British publishing house of Victor Gollancz asked him to write a history of the field. Instead, he wrote a novel.
From 1970 to 1989, he turned out a book almost every year. Among his most acclaimed titles were “Colonel Butler’s Wolf” (1972), in which Audley ferrets out a Soviet agent in Oxford; “The ’44 Vintage,” which recounts Audley’s experiences in World War II; “Sion Crossing” (1984), in which one of Audley’s internal rivals bungles an investigation involving buried treasure from the U.S. Civil War; and “Here Be Monsters” (1985), which touches on the D-Day invasion and a ring of Soviet spies in the British intelligence service.
“We who fight monsters,” one of the characters in that book says, alluding to Nietzsche, “must take care, lest we become monsters too thereby.”
While writing his novels, Mr. Price continued to work at the Oxford Times, serving as its top editor from 1972 to 1988. After his final novel, “The Memory Trap,” appeared in 1989, he published one more book, a history of naval warfare from 1793 to 1815.
His wife of 59 years, the former Ann Stone, died in 2012. Survivors include three children and five grandchildren.
As a young journalist in 1956, Mr. Price was asked to write a review of a children’s book by a local author. Another reviewer found it “boring,” but Mr. Price was enchanted by what turned out to be the first volume of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”
Tolkien taught at Oxford, and Mr. Price sat down with him for what turned out to be Tolkien’s first newspaper interview.
“He wasn’t very popular,” Mr. Price recalled in the 2011 Existential Ennui interview. Another Oxford scholar, he said, complained: “Yes, Tolkien: very clever fellow, dear boy. Didn’t teach much. He used to bring that Elvish stuff, and I said, ‘Don’t let’s have any more of this Elvish nonsense!’ ”