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Obituaries

Morris L. West; Writer of 'Theological Thrillers'

October 11, 1999|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Morris L. West, an Australian writer of suspense fiction who was one of the first novelists to create "theological thrillers," has died.

West, whose books were translated into 27 languages and sold more than 60 million copies worldwide, was working on his latest novel, "The Last Confession," when he died Saturday at his home in Sydney, Associated Press reported. He was 83.

"He died very peacefully in the middle of writing a sentence," said his son, Chris O'Hanlon.

West had suffered from heart problems for some time, O'Hanlon said, but had otherwise not been in poor health.

"We're pleased he died that way," O'Hanlon said. "I really think he would have wanted to."

In a writing career that lasted more than 40 years, West plumbed the moral and ethical underpinnings of modern society in novels that plunged the reader into political turmoil, worldwide government corruption and the internal workings of the Catholic Church, which was the cornerstone of his life. Three of his better known novels--"The Devil's Advocate," "The Shoes of the Fisherman" and "The Clowns of God"--featured protagonists who were representatives of the church.

Born in Melbourne in 1916, West joined the Christian Brothers order "as a kind of refuge" from a troubled family life at the age of 14. He stayed in the order for 12 years as a novice and student, but chose the outside world when it came time for him to take his final vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. He taught mathematics and modern languages in New South Wales and Tasmania before volunteering for duty with the Australian Imperial Forces at the outset of World War II. His proficiency in math helped him find work at a cipher officer with the intelligence branch of the service.

He wrote his first novel, "Moon In My Pocket," a more or less autobiographical portrait of a young man disillusioned with life in a monastery, while stationed in Darwin, Australia, during the early days of the war.

After his release from the service, he held a number of positions in Australian radio companies, and by the time he was 36 he controlled a large percentage of the programming for Australian radio.

A tireless, driven worker, West stayed in the radio business until the early 1950s, when he suffered a breakdown that he later called a "psychosomatic job." This collapse led him to discover that he no longer wanted the pressures of his former life, but wanted to find his voice as a writer.

He wrote his second book, "Gallows on the Sand," in 10 days, and it sold for $700. His third novel, "Kundu," a New Guinea romance, did poorly in his country but sold to an American publisher for $3,000.

West later said the proceeds from these two "unimportant books" allowed him to begin his travels. It was in Italy that he heard about a Catholic priest working with the urchins of Naples.

His study of the priest, Don Mario Borelli, and his flock inspired the highly successful nonfiction book "Children of the Shadows: the True Story of the Street Urchins of Naples."

The book won worldwide praise and raised a good bit of money for Borelli's work. It also put West's name on the map in publishing.

Because of that book, West was offered a job as the Vatican correspondent for the London Daily Mail. There, he gained knowledge of the inner workings of the Vatican and material for his first highly successful novel, "The Devil's Advocate."

Published in 1959 at a time when nonfiction theological books were overly abundant, West's book was a departure. "The Devil's Advocate," which has no relationship to the 1997 film of the same name starring Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves, concerned a dying priest who is asked by the Vatican to help justify the sainthood of a British officer who was executed by Communist partisans during World War II.

Some Catholic book reviewers were shocked by its "irreverence" and sexual frankness. One reviewer called the book a "theological thriller." Other reviewers compared him favorably with Graham Greene.

In its first two years, "The Devil's Advocate" sold 3 million copies. It was staged on Broadway by Dory Schary.

In 1963, West finished "The Shoes of the Fisherman," the story of a humble Ukrainian bishop who is elected pope after spending years in a Soviet labor camp. This pope finds himself the negotiator between the Soviet Union and the United States in an effort to prevent war. In this capacity, he must confront the Russian leader who once tortured him.

The book was a popular and critical success.

Eighteen years later, West used the character of the pope again in "The Clowns of God," in which the pontiff is forced by the church to abdicate after he receives a vision of the second coming of Christ and decides to communicate this apocalyptic message to the rest of the world.

During the 1960s, he continued to turn out popular novels such as "The Ambassador" and "The Tower of Babel." He followed in later decades with "Harlequin," "The World is Made of Glass" and "Lazarus."

West said in an interview several years ago that he didn't have a favorite among his works and added: "I have never claimed to be anything other than a storyteller, although there's a bit of the philosopher in me."

In the early '90s, he underwent open heart surgery and said he had achieved spiritual peace.

"So I've sorted it out with God. I have no problem with faith, because faith to me is the acceptance of the whole, incomplete mystery. I am content to live with the mystery. I am part of it."

He is survived by his second wife, Joy, and six children. Funeral services will be private.

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