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Rodney Whitaker, a.k.a. Trevanian, 74; Author Wrote 'Eiger Sanction'

Obituaries

December 19, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Rodney William Whitaker, the mysterious mystery writer best known as Trevanian, the author of such international bestsellers as "The Eiger Sanction," has died. He was 74.

Whitaker died Wednesday in the West Country of England of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

His 1972 blockbuster "The Eiger Sanction," which was adapted as a 1975 movie starring Clint Eastwood, was Trevanian's first and perhaps best-known novel. In it, art historian and sometime assassin Jonathan Hemlock (Eastwood in the film) is sent to kill an enemy agent during a mountain climbing expedition on Switzerland's majestic Eiger.

Some derided that novel and "The Loo Sanction" in 1973 as pale James Bond derivatives. The author considered them intentional Bond spoofs. Whatever they were, they sold millions of copies and established him as a must-read mystery writer.

Among the other Trevanian novels were cult-favorite "Shibumi" in 1979, the romantic "The Summer of Katya" in 1983, the western "Incident at Twenty-Mile" in 1998 and his last, the semi-autobiographical "Crazyladies of Pearl Street," published in June.

For years, Whitaker studiously avoided interviews or publishers' promotions that would reveal his actual identity. Many speculated that "Trevanian" was actually novelist Robert Ludlum, a rumor Whitaker put to rest.

In a rare interview, he told the New York Times Book Review in 1979 that he wrote "under five different names on several subjects: theology, law, aesthetics, film...."

The eclectic author, using the pseudonym Nicholas Seare, wrote the medieval parody "1339 or So ... Being an Apology for a Pedlar," published in 1975, and "Rude Tales and Glorious: The Account of Diverse Feats of Brawn and Bawd Performed by King Arthur and His Knights of the Table Round" in 1983.

An educator in communication and dramatic arts, Whitaker wrote nonfiction books under his own name. Among those was "The Language of Film" in 1970.

He also wrote under the names Benat LeCagot and Edoard Moran. Were there others? Even the staid comprehensive anthology Contemporary Authors noted: "It is difficult to determine how many works he has published with other names."

His writing has been compared to that of Emile Zola, Bond's creator Ian Fleming, Edgar Allan Poe and Chaucer. Unlike many popular mystery authors, Whitaker never turned out formulaic books.

Each seemed a separate and unique creation, linked only by what the Washington Post in 1983 described as "a consistently high level of craftsmanship, a certain playfulness of style and a pervasive message that things are not what they seem."

A Times reviewer wrote of his Montreal-based 1976 Trevanian mystery: " 'The Main' is as real and unsentimental as a good writer can make it -- the characters believable, the exotic terrain drawn accurately and with a good deal of color, the search for the murderer making an otherwise episodic narrative taut and compelling.... This is a good book, one to go to bed with."

The Hartford Courant, in reviewing his 2005 semi-autobiography based in Depression-era Albany, N.Y., noted: "The thrust in 'Crazyladies' isn't in the driving of the plot but in the feel of the place and people, and Trevanian triumphs, aided by his trademark etymologic dexterity and dispassionate wit....

"The real Pearl Street may have been a pit of desolation for its residents, but readers will find it irresistible. They won't come away from it with an unforgettable story to tell, but they will feel as if they have been someplace and met some people they won't soon forget."

To mask his identity and protect his privacy -- or perhaps just for fun -- Whitaker not only used many names, he also insisted that he sent substitutes to pose as him in interviews and sometimes claimed not to know any Professor Whitaker. His publisher disclosed that Trevanian was Whitaker in 1984. In 1975, Whitaker used his own name in a shared screenwriting credit for the Eastwood movie.

The author remained attached to pseudonyms long after his real name was published in reference books. He offered some insight in a 1998 interview with Newsweek, shortly after publication of his Wyoming-based novel "Twenty-Mile," which the magazine described as a "spectacularly entertaining western."

Whitaker explained that names were involved with his unusual method of writing, which required conjuring up an author capable of writing a particular novel. "I ask myself, 'Who can tell this tale best? Who would already have this information?' " he told Newsweek. He said he would name his imagined author and then, using Method acting techniques, set the author-character to writing the novel.

The elusive Whitaker was born June 12, 1931, in Granville, N.Y., near Albany. He served in the Navy during the Korean War, then earned bachelor's and master's degrees in drama at the University of Washington and a doctorate in communications from Northwestern University.

In the late 1960s, he taught in the film department of the University of Texas in Austin and became department chairman.

When his Trevanian novels took off, he bought a home in France's Basque country, which became the setting for some of his books.

Whitaker is survived by his wife, Diane Brandon Whitaker; two sons, Lance and Christian; and two daughters, Alexandra and Tomasin.

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