Mr. Smith’s novels were filled with bloodshed, bodice ripping and exotic settings, transporting readers to the pyramids of ancient Egypt, a salvage ship in the frigid South Sea and elephant hunts in Zimbabwe. While his books were usually only modestly successful in the United States, they were translated into some 30 languages and found a devoted audience in Britain and Italy, selling more than 140 million copies worldwide.
A former accountant who drafted his first novel on tax forms, Mr. Smith wrote roughly a book a year, drawing inspiration in part from his own life. He survived cerebral malaria as a newborn and polio as a teenager, trekked across the desert on a camel and encountered Somali pirates near a private island he bought in the Seychelles. He said he was charged by elephants and crocodiles, and at age 13, he shot his first lion — or rather three lions, by his telling, after they attacked a herd of cattle on his father’s ranch in Northern Rhodesia.
“Africa is a savage place and always has been,” he told Britain’s Daily Express in 2009, using typically sweeping language to describe the continent where he was raised. “It’s a place of conflict. And my dad looked upon the wilderness as something that should be tamed. He was the one who taught me to hunt. So there’s a lot of blood in my books. There is also a lot of interplay between the sexes. That’s what life is all about.”
To many of his fans, his books were a raucous celebration of bloodstained masculinity and a throwback to the work of English authors like H. Rider Haggard, whose adventure novel “King Solomon’s Mines” helped spur Mr. Smith’s childhood obsession with reading. Detractors accused him of promoting racial stereotypes and noted that he often glorified British imperialism, celebrating White hunters, soldiers and settlers who took up arms against Black Africans and rival Europeans.
“These men had a very strong paternalistic instinct,” Mr. Smith told the Age, an Australian daily, in 2005. “They thought they were doing what was best. Colonialism under the British was an altruistic doctrine. . . . It was a process of maturing. It had its place, but now the time is passed. I’m writing about those type of men — Victorian explorers, hunters, traders.”
His protagonists frequently found themselves scrambling to get out of trouble and then falling into bed, embracing women whose bones “went soft with desire” and whose loins “melted like wax.” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson once recalled that among his fellow students at Eton, Mr. Smith was “venerated for his dog-eared sex scenes.” By many accounts, women made up a larger share of his audience than men.
“I enjoy sex,” Mr. Smith once said. “I enjoy writing about it and I enjoy thinking about it.”
Many critics said his novels were stilted, repetitive and cartoonish, even as they acknowledged he could be a gripping storyteller. As Mr. Smith told it, he was “writing stories,” not great literature. He said he reread his novels with pleasure, finding no room for improvement, and told Britain’s Sunday Telegraph that he was a bit like the hero of his novel “River God” (1993), which kicked off a series about ancient Egypt.
“I think that Taita is like me,” he said. “He doesn’t admit failure. Even if he has failed.”
Wilbur Addison Smith was born in Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia — now Kabwe, Zambia — on Jan. 9, 1933. His mother painted watercolors and encouraged his interest in reading, while his father ran a sheet-metal factory and then a ranch and insisted that his son focus on more practical matters.
“I was forced to become a secret reader,” Mr. Smith wrote in a biographical essay. “I spent so much time in the outhouse long-drop latrine, where I kept a cache of my favorite books, that my father ordered my mother to administer regular and copious doses of castor oil.”
Mr. Smith studied at boarding schools in South Africa and graduated from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, now known as Makhanda, in 1954. He dreamed of becoming a journalist or professional hunter, but when his father told him he would “starve to death,” he became an accountant instead. In his spare time, he wrote a novel.
“It was a piece of rubbish,” he later recalled. “I made all the mistakes of a first novelist. I had more characters in the book than ‘War And Peace,’ and I pontificated on politics.”
On his second try, he dropped politics and focused instead on ranching, gold mining, ivory hunting and the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. The result, “When the Lion Feeds” (1964), became a bestseller and introduced readers to the Courtney family, which he followed over multiple generations and more than a dozen novels. He later chronicled the history of another fictional family, the Ballantynes, beginning with “A Falcon Flies” (1980); wrote about an archaeological dig in “The Sunbird” (1972); and created one of his first female protagonists for “The Burning Shore” (1985), about a nurse during World War I.
Several of his novels were adapted into movies, including “Dark of the Sun” (1968), about a band of mercenaries hunting for diamonds during the Congo Crisis; “Gold” (1974), which starred Roger Moore as the general manager of a South African mine; and “Shout at the Devil” (1976), with Moore and Lee Marvin, who became a fishing buddy.
Mr. Smith’s publishing deals were widely publicized in Britain, as was his tumultuous personal life; some of his children and stepchildren said he neglected and abandoned them. “I can be hard. I don’t want to be, but I don’t like being hurt,” he said in a 2015 interview with the Sunday Times of London. “They were important to me at one point, make no mistake — very important — but not now. It’s sadder for them than it is for me, because they’re not getting any more money.”
He had two children from his first marriage, to Anne Rennie — “He definitely, definitely felt he was wasted on one woman,” she later said — and a son from his second marriage, to Jewell Slabbart. In 1971, he married Danielle Thomas, who died of brain cancer in 1999. The next year, he married Mokhiniso “Niso” Rakhimova, who was from Tajikistan and trained as a lawyer. They met at a London bookshop, where he saw her browsing a shelf of John Grisham novels and steered her toward his own work. She was 39 years his junior.
“She was young, in her early 20s,” Mr. Smith told the Sunday Times, “and I was as randy as a stallion in a ranch full of mares.” They later founded the Wilbur and Niso Smith Foundation, which supports young and aspiring writers. Information on survivors was not immediately available.
Late in his career, Mr. Smith began to farm out some of his writing, signing a reported $24 million deal with HarperCollins in 2012 under which he would supervise six novels and work at times with co-authors. Mindful of his mortality, he had insisted on churning out books until his death, telling the Daily Express, “I know somewhere ahead there is a great brick-red wall, but when I get there I want to be going at full speed with my foot on the accelerator.”