John Gardner, R.I.P.

Filed in Gather Books Essential by on September 14, 2007 0 Comments

In case you missed the news, John Gardner, one of the greatest of all espionage writers, died suddenly on August 3. He had had a stroke more than a year ago and things looked dire for a while, but he gradually came out of it and he finished the book he was working on.

The book is titled Moriarty and is the third of a trilogy, the first two volumes of which came out in the mid-1970s. No one who ever wrote about Sherlock Holmes ever got the era down so perfectly. Well, Arthur Conan Doyle did, of course, but I mean the hundreds of authors in later years who wrote pastiches. These marvelous books purported to be based on journals that Moriarty had left behind at his death. They were among my favorite books of the time and I always wanted him to write the third one, offering him contracts at whatever house I happened to have my imprint. Mostly, he was so busy writing the James Bond books (he wrote 14 of them; Ian Fleming only wrote 12) that he couldn’t do it. Finally, when I signed up with Harcourt to publish crime fiction under my imprint, he was one of the first three authors with whom I made contact, and this time it happened. We made our agreement and then the physical problems beset him. After the stroke, I thought it would never happen.

Having given up hope, I was stunned to walk into my office one morning and there it was. I read it that weekend and was reminded of how much I loved those first two books, and this one was every bit as clever and wonderfully written. I asked him to do a few minor rewrites, which he did in less than two weeks. I was thrilled, and so was he, knowing that he’d written a really good book. Two days later, while shopping in his village, he had a heart attack and was gone before he got to the hospital.

It’s a terrible loss. We were friends for more than 30 years. I’d met him in England back in my early years of being involved professionally with mysteries. I had two columns in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in those days, one a general book column and one devoted to interviews with the major mystery writers of the time. I’d written to ask if he would agree to be interviewed and he said yes, inviting me to his house in the countryside for a lovely lunch. The little interview turned into an all-day fun-fest and we were fast friends ever after. When he decided to move to America (a country he loved), I sponsored him. The irony of his difficulties in being able to move here was not lost on us as we saw millions of illegal people without education or skills sneak across the border with impunity. After many years, he moved back to England when his wife Margaret contracted cancer and wanted to die at her old home.

When interviewed about "best" or "favorite" books, I have for many years stated that his novel, The Garden of Weapons, may have been the greatest espionage novel ever written. When I’m being more conservative, I’d say one of the three greatest (along with Charles McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn and John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy). It is, sadly and inexplicably, out of print. But second-hand copies aren’t too hard to find so, if you like this genre, be good to yourself and pick up a copy.

He wrote a lot of books, and I don’t remember reading a bad one. The publishing world will miss him. So will I.

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Conservative, outgoing, smart, immodest, laugher, bookish, loyal

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