James Clavell; Author of ‘Shogun,’ Other Best-Sellers


James Clavell, prolific author of epic best-selling novels such as “Shogun” and “Noble House” which were usually reincarnated on the small or silver screen, has died. He was 69.

Clavell died Tuesday at his home in Vevey, Switzerland. His American publishers said he had suffered from cancer, and his British publishers said he had also had a stroke.

Although Clavell began his career as a screenwriter and director, he found his literary niche in thick novels. He penned at least five best-sellers, beginning with “King Rat” in 1962, which was based on his experience in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. His other top sellers, all set in the Far East, included “Tai-Pan” “Shogun,” “Noble House” and, just last year, “Gai-Jin.”


“King Rat” and “Tai-Pan” were turned into feature films, and “Shogun” and “Noble House” were made into often-replayed television series.

Although critics disparaged his writing, they acknowledged that his name had marquee value that made him one of the century’s most widely read novelists. The National Review once called Clavell a “first-rate novelist of the second rank . . . who provides genuinely stimulating literary entertainment without insulting the sensibilities.”

When “Tai-Pan” appeared in 1966, a Time magazine reviewer called it “a belly-gutting, god-rotting typhoon of a book. . . . It isn’t art and it isn’t truth. But its very energy and scope command the eye.” The book sold 2 million copies.

“Shogun” sold more than 7 million copies and the 1980 television series attracted 130 million viewers.

Clavell’s 1986 blockbuster set in Iran, “Whirlwind,” was auctioned for $5 million, a record at the time.

“The trick,” he told The Times in 1988, “is to become a brand name. That’s what sells the books. People see it there on the screen and remember it next time they’re in a bookstore.”


Whatever his trick, Clavell’s writing was never boring. He propelled readers through lightning-paced 1,200- or 1,300-page tomes with a melange of obsessions with war and power, interlaced with international espionage, skulduggery and steamy forbidden sex.

“He was one of the great epic storytellers of our age,” said Eric Major of Clavell’s London publisher, Hodder & Stoughton. “(He was) a man who was deeply imbued in tradition, and also enormous fun to work with.”

A multinational writing industry, Clavell was born in Sydney, Australia, grew up in England, became a U.S. citizen in 1963 and in his later years spent most of his time in Switzerland.

He was a captain with the British Royal Artillery during World War II when he was captured by the Japanese. He spent three years in the Changi prison camp in Singapore, where only 10,000 of 150,000 POWs survived.

“The Japanese tore the heart out of me when I was 18,” he said in 1975. “Changi was a school for survivors. It gave me a strength most people don’t have. I have an awareness of life others lack. . . . I know I’m living 40 borrowed lifetimes.”

Clavell worked briefly as a salesman after the war and in 1953 moved to Hollywood to work on a television pilot. Later, he switched to screenwriting and had some success with such films as “The Fly” and “The Great Escape.”


Clavell also directed and produced. His most successful combined effort of writing, producing and directing was “To Sir With Love,” a 1967 British film starring Sidney Poitier as a novice teacher in London.

The author is survived by his wife of 43 years, April Clavell, and two daughters, Michaela and Holly.