James leasor: Journalist and thriller writer

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Thomas James Leasor, journalist and novelist: born Erith, Kent 20 December 1923; married 1951 Joan Bevan (three sons); died Swallowcliffe, Wiltshire 10 September 2007.

James Leasor was a writer of boundless enthusiasm, who could turn his typewriter to most genres, and seemed equally happy producing entertaining non-fiction as the thrillers that were his trademark during the 1960s and 1970s. While Ian Fleming had Bond and John le Carr had George Smiley, Leasor had Dr Jason Love, a country GP who has to keep taking time off from his practice to battle his country's ruthless foes (usually in the Middle East), armed with an automatic pistol, a knowledge of unarmed combat and a very fast car.

Throughout his life, Leasor was a lover of very fast cars and, like Fleming before him, once admitted to a fondness for the thrillers of Dornford Yates, one of whose skills was regularly to transform a description of a simple car-chase into something approaching poetry. When in the money, Leasor bought himself a 1937 American Cord sports car "one of the few open Cords in Britain" which he lovingly maintained till the day he died.

His put his auto-knowledge to particular use in those of his thrillers narrated by the anonymous classic-car dealer of Aristo Autos They Don't Make Them Like That Any More (1969) and Never Had a Spanner on Her (1970), in which, as well as telling a cracking yarn, he had a good deal of fun with the slightly iffy business of car salesmanship. Some years later, Dr Love and the proprietor of Aristo Autos appeared together in Host of Extras (1973).

When, after 15-odd years of working on newspapers and turning out moderately successful biographies, books of wartime adventure, and historical works, Leasor hit the jackpot with his first Jason Love novel Passport to Oblivion (1964), he cannily registered himself as a limited company, Jason Love Ltd, thus protecting his and his family's future.

James Leasor was born in Erith, Kent in 1923, and educated at the City of London School from 1935 to 1940, where one of his contemporaries was the slightly older Kingsley Amis. For a short while before call-up he studied medicine and then was a reporter on the Kentish Times (1941-42). He joined the East Kent regiment, was sent to India and commissioned into the Lincolnshires, ending up a Captain and enduring several hair-raising experiences (including having his troopship blown apart under him in the Bay of Bengal and spending six hours in the water).

While in India he wrote his first novel, a comedy, Not Such a Bad Day (1946), sending instalments by airmail to his mother to type out back in England. She managed to interest a small publisher in Leicester, who paid 50 for the rights, and then proceeded to sell nearly 30,000 copies to a public starved of comic novels. Back in Britain, Leasor read English at Oriel College, Oxford, where he also edited Isis and began to churn out articles for the "man's adventure" monthly The Wide World.

For a few years Leasor worked for the Beaverbrook organisation, as gossip columnist (for the Daily Mail), reporter, foreign correspondent and feature writer. For a fraught period he acted as Beaverbrook's secretary, enduring the press baron's notorious whims at first hand and getting sacked and rehired on a regular basis.

During the 1950s, he wrote a number of entertaining popular histories, including The Red Fort (1956), an account of the siege of Delhi during the 1857 Mutiny and, with the American journalist Kendal Burt, The One That Got Away (1956), the story of the only German POW to escape British captivity. Later the director Roy Ward Baker turned it into a hugely successful film, with the German actor Hardy Krger in the lead role.

Leasor was lucky with his films. Passport to Oblivion was turned into Where the Spies Are (1965); David Niven played a somewhat over-urbane Dr Love. An even better movie, which also starred Niven, was The Sea Wolves (1980), adapted from Leasor's Boarding Party (1978), about a real-life British attack on a German spy vessel in the waters off Portuguese and so neutral Goa in 1943.

Leasor was admired by editors for his ability to deliver to deadlines; he viewed writing as a serious job although he once pointed out that he wrote thrillers "because I enjoy writing them" and just about anything was grist to his mill.

He ghosted several "autobiographies", including those of the actors Jack Hawkins and Kenneth More, as well as that of ex-King Zog of Albania (who made him a member of the Order of St John of Jerusalem as a kind of pourboire), and was the guiding hand behind the Duke of Windsor's memoirs. At one stage, under the name Douglas Anderson, he solved emotional problems on Woman's Own magazine, and in 1971 he wrote the book for the off-Broadway musical Look Where I'm At!, based on one of Thorne Smith's hilariously rambunctious comic novels Rain in the Doorway (1933). In his late sixties he started using a pseudonym, beginning a new series of high-powered thrillers as Andrew MacAllan.

Jack Adrian