Diehl, William 1924–
Diehl, William 1924–
(William Francis Diehl, Jr.)
PERSONAL: Born December 4, 1924, in Jamaica, NY; son of William Francis and Catherine Marie Diehl; married Virginia Arnold, 1953 (divorced, 1968); married Catherine Clifford, 1970 (divorced, 1980); married Virginia Gunn (a television performer), December 31, 1982; children: (first marriage) Cathy (Mrs. John Lovern), William Francis III, Stanford Arnold, Melissa; (second marriage) Temple. Education: University of Missouri (now University of Missouri—Columbia), B.A., 1949. Politics: Democrat. Hobbies and other interests: Films, snow skiing, swimming, travel (especially in the Orient), raising huskies, psychism and the occult, Oriental philosophy, Egyptian history (has a reading knowledge of hieroglyphics), politics, reading.
ADDRESSES: Home—Woodstock, GA. Agent—c/o Publicity Department, Random House Publishing Group, 1745 Broadway, 18th Fl., New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Writer and journalist. Atlanta Constitution, Atlanta, GA, reporter and author of column "Around Atlanta," 1949–55; free-lance writer and photographer, 1955–60; Atlanta, Atlanta, staff writer and managing editor, 1960–66; New Orleans, New Orleans, LA, consulting and senior editor, 1966–67; Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH, consulting and senior editor, 1968–69; free-lance writer, 1969–. Free-lance photographer, 1958–75, with Black Star Agency and United States Information Agency; former official photographer for Martin Luther King, Jr. Actor with Atlanta theater groups, 1958–63. Military service: U.S. Army Air Forces, ball turret gunner, 1942–45; served in Europe; became master sergeant; received Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, and two Presidential Citations.
MEMBER: Sigma Delta Chi.
AWARDS, HONORS: Distinguished reporting award from Sigma Delta Chi, 1953; spot news award of the year from Associated Press, 1953; annual fiction award from Dixie Council of Writers, 1979, for Sharky's Machine.
A City in Transition, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (Washington, DC), 1968.
Sharky's Machine, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1978.
Chameleon, Random House (New York, NY), 1981.
Hooligans, Villard Books (New York, NY), 1984.
Thai Horse, Villard Books (New York, NY), 1987.
27, Villard Books (New York, NY), 1990.
Primal Fear, Villard Books (New York, NY), 1993.
Show of Evil, Ballantine Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Reign in Hell, Ballantine Books (New York, NY), 1997.
Eureka, Ballantine Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor of articles and photographs to magazines, including Esquire, Life, Look, and New York.
ADAPTATIONS: Sharky's Machine was filmed by Orion in 1981; the rights to Hooligans have been purchased by Columbia; Primal Fear has been made into a feature film. Books have been adapted as audio recordings, including Primal Fear, Random House, 1993.
SIDELIGHTS: After years of writing for newspapers and magazines, William Diehl found himself deeply dissatisfied. "When I was fifty," he told Robert Dahlin of Publishers Weekly, "I sat myself down and said, 'Diehl, you're a loser.' I'd just written a story on azaleas for Sky magazine. It was one I didn't get paid much for, and I didn't put much effort into it. I'd written a lot of magazine stories. What it's like being a steeplejack on Atlanta's tallest building. I put in five days in the Atlanta penitentiary to write about life there. What can you write about azaleas? Oh, I was on jury duty too just then, and I couldn't even get on one. My ego was dragging ass."
Diehl's ego did not stay down for long. While waiting to be selected for a jury panel, he wrote a brief sketch of a fictional street cop demoted to the vice squad for shooting a drug dealer on a crowded bus. Diehl expanded the sketch into his first novel, Sharky's Machine, and his luck changed dramatically. The book, which Jack Beatty described in Newsweek as "the complete thriller—its prose is clipped and ready for action, and the pace never flags," not only sold well but was also adapted for the screen, bringing Diehl about 750,000 dollars in combined royalties. "That was a lot of money for a man who was dead broke," he said in Publishers Weekly. "I was on a long-distance call before the book was sold and, pfft, right in the middle of the conversation, my telephone service was cut off. Then, suddenly to have that kind of money." The author went on to note: "You learn quickly that agent's fees and legal fees and taxes take 65% to 70%, but you still have all that money, and you find out how fast you can spend it."
Sharky's Machine has all the ingredients of a successful thriller—violent deaths by the dozen, marathon sex with unusual variations, exotic scenery, a colorful array of underworld characters, and a hooker with a heart of gold. In the book, Sharky and his hand-picked group of detectives track high-priced call girl Domino Brittain in an effort to get her boss, Victor DeLaroza, who is building an elaborately decadent amusement park for Atlanta's super-rich. Along the way, Sharky falls in love with Domino, who ends up being murdered by one of DeLaroza's henchmen. Sharky's "machine" of detectives has only a few hours to sort out what happened before the homicide squad takes over the case. "What started as a simple crackdown on a call girl-plus-extortion racket turns into a race against time and a bunch of heavies as ruthless as you're likely to encounter between the covers of a book," concluded Richard Freedman in the New York Times Book Review.
Diehl did not write the screenplay for "Sharky's Machine," but Burt Reynolds, who directed the film and played Sharky, gave him a cameo role "just long enough to receive a blast of obscenities from [Charles] Durning, punch out a woman, and storm off the screen," reports Dahlin. The violence in the film is characteristic of Diehl's novels—guns, knives, and bombs kill a number of people in both Sharky's Machine and Chameleon—though Diehl maintains he is a very nonviolent person. He speculates that the high level of violence in his books may be due to his wartime experience as an eighteen-year-old ball turret gunner. He told CA that after being shot down during a bombing raid over Munich, Germany in 1945, he worked behind the lines with Yugoslavian guerillas. "Part of the background for Sharky's Machine came from this experience," he said.
After enjoying success as a novelist, Diehl is not about to go back to magazine writing. "In magazines," he told Dahlin, "you can't expand on the truth. If I tell you a story, say something that happened to me on the way up here from Atlanta, I'd cut out the boring parts to make it interesting. I might overdramatize some of it to make it more interesting. I'm never going to tell a story straight. I never tell one the same way twice. I'm always thinking of ways to improve it."
Diehl has continued to practice his craft and produce a number of novels. The author followed up Sharky's Machine with Chameleon a story about monopolizing the world's oil market, and Hooligans, in which a group of renegade cops clean up a racetrack town. In Thai Horse, Diehl tells the story of ex-naval officer Christian Hatcher, who is living in retirement in Florida when he signs onto find an old friend who was thought killed in Viet Nam more than decade earlier. As he searches for his friend, Hatcher comes closer to the secret of the mysterious person known as Thai Horse. Charles Salzberg, writing in the New York Times, noted that the author "knows how to tell a story, and his novel moves along at a good pace."
The novel 27 presents a suspense thriller about a German actor and disguise artist named Johann Ingersoll, who agrees to Hitler's request to kill twenty-seven powerful men in the United States. Writing in People, Lorenzo Carcaterra commented that the author "inter-weaves his fictional creations among historical figures while keeping a pace worthy of an all-out prizefight." New York Times contributor Burt Hochberg wrote: "Mr. Diehl handles action scenes well, and the story keeps you turning pages."
Diehl presents Martin Vail, a tough attorney who gets caught up in defending an innocent-appearing psychotic who has killed the Archbishiop of Chicago, in the novel Primal Fear. In a review in the New York Times, Karen Ray noted that the author "can sustain suspense." Writing in People, Louisa Ermelino commented on the author's "talent for taut dialogue and unnerving suspense."
Show of Evil is a sequel to Primal Fear in which Vail falls in love and then becomes a D.A. only to find himself fighting his lawyer paramour in court during a case involving a secretary accused of murdering her boss. "Diehl's fast pacing and smooth mix of humor, tension and malevolence add up to bracing entertainment," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. Mary Frances Wilkens, writing in Booklist, called the book "an exciting thriller."
In his third novel featuring Vail, Reign in Hell, Diehl recounts Vail's stint as a U.S. assistant attorney general trying to make a case against a violent right-wing group. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that the author's "take on White House machinations is appealingly cynical and his presentation of militia ways and mindsets is brutally believable." Stacey Reasor, writing in the Library Journal, commented: "Diehl's exciting mystery teaches the reader never to think that it is over."
Diehl leaves attorney Vail behind for his book Eureka. This time the author tells an historical tale dating from the early part of the twentieth century. The story revolves around a case of a woman electrocuted in her bathtub around the turn of the century, and it is taken up once again by wounded, World War II veteran Zeke Bannon, who reopens the case at the behest of Ski Agassi, Bannon's ex-partner at the Los Angeles Police Department. The trail leads to a small town once called Eureka at the turn of the century and that used to cater to criminals. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that "this labyrinthine, multigenerational epic scrolls across the still-lawless frontier landscape of California." Jo Ann Vicarel, writing in the Library Journal, commented that the author "has written his most unusual and possibly best novel to date."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, April 15, 1995, Mary Frances Wilkens, review of Show of Evil, p. 1451; December 1, 2001, Mary Fances Wilkens, review of Eureka, p. 606.
Entertainment Weekly, February 12, 1993, Gene Lyons, review of Primal Fear, p. 50.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2001, review of Eureka, p. 1702.
Library Journal, December, 1997, Stacey Reasor, review of Reign in Hell, p. 150; January, 2002, Jo Ann Vicarel, review of Eureka, p. 149.
Maclean's, January 19, 1998, review of"Militia Terror," brief interview with author.
New York Times Book Review, November 26, 1978, Richard Freedman, review of Sharky's Machine, p. 46; February 7, 1982, Elisabeth Jakob, review of Chameloen, p. 13.
New York Times, January 30, 1982, Anatole Broyard, review of Chameleon, p. 13; August 19, 1984, Newgate Callendar, review of Hooligans, p. 20; January 10, 1988, Charles Salzberg, review of Thai Horse, p. 20; May 13, 1990, Burt Hochberg, review of 27, p. 24; March 7, 1993, Karen Ray, review of Primal Fear.
Newsweek, September 4, 1978, Jack Beatty, review of Sharky's Machine, p. 80.
Observer (London, England), October 22, 1978, review of Sharky's Machine, p. 35.
People, July 30, 1984, review of Hooligans, p. 12; March 19, 1990, Lorenzo Carcaterra, review of 27, p. 23; February 15, 1993, Louisa Ermelino, review of Primal Fear, p. 31.
Playboy, March, 1993, Digby Diehl, review of Primal Fear, p. 30.
Publishers Weekly, January 8, 1982, Robert Dahlin, interview with author; November 16, 1992, review of Primal Fear, p. 44; April 10, 1995, review of Show of Evil, p. 52; September 15, 1997, review of Reign in Hell, p. 48; January 7, 2002, review of Eureka, p. 44.
Books 'n' Bytes, http://www.booksnbytes.com/ (February 1, 2006), Harriet Klausner, review of Eureka.