William Diehl, 81; war experiences influenced writer’s popular thrillers

Times Staff Writer

William Diehl, the bestselling author known best for “Sharky’s Machine” and “Primal Fear” -- fast-paced thrillers that became hit movies -- died Friday at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. He was 81.

The cause was an aortic aneurysm, said a longtime friend, Don Smith.

Diehl was a former journalist and photographer who became a novelist late in life after a dispirited awakening at his 50th birthday party. Over the next three decades he wrote nine novels that appealed to popular tastes with plotlines fueled by murder, greed, romance and other forms of mayhem.

For instance, in “27" (1990, later reissued as “The Hunt”), a woman is brutally murdered by Hitler’s henchmen; in “Primal Fear” (1993), an archbishop is butchered by an angelic-looking Appalachian youth; in “Show of Evil” (1995), a young woman is found dead with a mysterious code printed in blood on the back of her head.

He was believed to have been nearly finished with his 10th novel when he was hospitalized last week. It is titled “Seven Ways to Die.”


Diehl, a native of Jamaica, N.Y., often cited his experiences during World War II as a strong influence on his fiction. He lied about his age to join the Army Air Corps at 17 and served as a ball turret gunner on a B-24 during World War II. His conduct in that perilous job earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart and Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters.

Even without World War II, Diehl’s life was more eventful than most.

According to family lore, Mae West was once his baby-sitter, before she became a Hollywood sex symbol.

On a school field trip in 1937, he witnessed the explosion of the Hindenburg, then the world’s largest aircraft.

After the war, he graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in creative writing and history and in 1949 moved to Atlanta, where he joined the staff of the Atlanta Constitution. He got the job after staking out the newspaper lobby and waiting for editor Ralph McGill to walk by.

“I introduced myself and told him about my situation,” Diehl told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2002. “He asked me if I had been in the war. I told him I had been a ball turret gunner.... He said anybody who had gone through that deserved a job, so he hired me as an obit writer.”

He remained at the paper as a reporter and columnist until 1955, then freelanced for several years. In 1960 he became the first managing editor of Atlanta magazine. He taught himself how to take photographs for his stories and later worked as a freelance photographer.

He met Martin Luther King Jr. in the mid-1960s as a photographer for the United States Information Agency and was swept up in the civil rights movement. He was attacked one night in 1967 while accompanying King on a tour of Mississippi by two assailants, who slashed his throat with a straight razor.

“I suppose they were offended that a white guy was doing so much to help people in a black community,” he said in a 1995 interview with the Toronto Star. The assault left a six-inch scar under his jaw.

The turning point of his life came in a moment characterized more by bathos than pathos, however.

He had no permanent job and was on his second marriage in 1974 when he turned 50. Someone had given him a party with an ice-cream cake shaped like a typewriter, an allusion to Diehl’s long-held dream of becoming a novelist.

The cake, too pretty to eat, melted into a gooey mess, which struck Diehl as a metaphor for his life.

“I’d been working for 30 years and what did I have to show for it?” he recalled thinking when he beheld the cake.

The next day, he sold all his cameras, borrowed $5,000 from his best friend, and resolved to launch his best and final career.

While on jury duty some time later, he hatched the plot of “Sharky’s Machine” (1978), which races around the globe from Italy to Hong Kong to Atlanta, where a detective stumbles into a complex web of extortion, sex and murder. Critics raved. It was turned into a successful 1981 movie directed by Burt Reynolds, who also starred as Sgt. Tom Sharky. Diehl had a cameo role as a pimp.

“Primal Fear,” which followed the same trajectory from bestseller lists to big screen, introduced Martin Vail, a high-profile defense lawyer who takes on a seemingly hopeless case. Diehl drew on memories of his throat slashing to add grit and horror to a passage in “Primal Fear.”

Some reviewers complained that his characters were not well-developed and that his writing was clunky. “His sentences crawl across the page and die,” John Coyne wrote in the Washington Post. But others said that any shortcomings were outweighed by the riveting action and what New York Times reviewer Karen Ray called “an ending that is truly socko.”

The movie based on “Primal Fear” was released in 1996 and starred Richard Gere as the lawyer and Edward Norton as the improbable killer.

His last novel was “Eureka,” published in 2002. Somewhat of a departure from his earlier works, it is a historical thriller that covers the first four decades of the 1900s. Publishers Weekly called it “his best novel ever.”

Diehl nearly died while writing “Eureka.” He was in severe pain for two years, the lingering result of having suffered frostbite while flying a mission during World War II. He wound up having six toes amputated in 2001, but the pain subsided and he was able to complete the novel.

He concocted the violent scenarios in most of his books in the placid environs of Georgia’s St. Simons Island, where he lived for 20 years with his third wife, Virginia Gunn, a former Atlanta television reporter. Disenchantment with his medical care was one of the main reasons they moved to a six-acre farm in Woodstock, about 45 minutes north of Atlanta, five years ago.

In addition to Gunn, Diehl is survived by five children and eight grandchildren.