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Walter Wager

Thriller writer who broke into Hollywood

The New York thriller writer Walter Wager was as prolific as he was imaginative and many of his books had at their core terrorist attacks which mirror the violent times in which we live.

Walter Herman Wager, novelist: born New York 4 September 1924; married first Sylvia Leonard (died 1989; one daughter; marriage dissolved), second Winifred McIvor; died New York 11 July 2004.

The New York thriller writer Walter Wager was as prolific as he was imaginative and many of his books had at their core terrorist attacks which mirror the violent times in which we live.

In Tunnel (2000) a group of international terrorists, the Beirut Brigade, threaten to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River unless their demands are met. In The Spirit Team (1996) a North African dictator plots to use a poisonous blue fungus against New York. Otto's Boy (1985) deals with an attempt to unleash nerve gas into a subway. Less convincingly, Wager's last book, Kelly's People (2002), introduces us to five transplant patients, all secret agents, who have their recuperation cut short to foil a conspiracy of a disgruntled Russian general and an extremist Arab leader.

Walter Wager was born in the Bronx in 1924, son of a doctor and a nurse from Tsarist Russia. Like many from immigrant backgrounds he felt the pressure to make his mark. He entered Columbia University in 1943 to study pre-law, and then went on to graduate in law at Harvard. He passed the Bar exams but did not practise law. Instead, he gained a master's degree in aviation law from Northwestern University in 1949 followed by a Fulbright scholarship at the Sorbonne in Paris. He was then offered a job as an aviation law consultant by the Israeli government to assist on negotiations on an air space treaty.

After a year in Israel he returned to New York to work for the UN editing documents. But this job did not last and Wager started writing radio and television scripts. He wrote and produced for CBS radio and television and for NBC-TV, and was Editor-in-Chief at Playbill from 1963 to 1966. He then worked as an editor and public relations director for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and in the early 1990s was Director of Public Information for the University of Bridgeport, in Connecticut.

Wager sold his first novel, Death Hits the Jackpot, through a friend, to a paperback publishing house in 1956. Appearing under the pen name John Tiger, the book told the story of two CIA agents who used agency dollars for gambling. He published a second novel, Operation Intrigue (1956, as Walter Hermann), on the chilling subject of a US invasion of China. These were the first of 25 novels, many of which have been translated in other languages. Wager also wrote several works of non-fiction.

Wager admitted to having been influenced by John le Carré, Eric Ambler and Raymond Chandler. Despite state-of-the-art technology in his plots, he still wrote his books on an old manual typewriter. New York often featured in his books because he was attached to his native city and its fate and because, at a practical level, he was familiar with the locations.

In 1977 Wager broke into Hollywood with the adaptation for the screen of his spy novel Telefon (1975), starring Charles Bronson and Donald Pleasance. Pleasance plays a psychotic KGB clerk who plans to start World War III through his control of 51 "sleepers", human time-bombs who can be activated by a telephone call; Charles Bronson is the "good" KGB agent sent to America to eliminate him.

The same year Viper Three (1971) was adapted as Twilight's Last Gleaming. A US-West German co-production directed by Robert Aldrich, the film starred Burt Lancaster as a cashiered US Air Force officer who seizes a nuclear missile site to force public disclosure of secret Vietnam War policy aims. It was criticised in some circles as not doing justice to the book by cutting the references to the Vietnam War. The box-office hit Die Hard II (1990), staring Bruce Willis, was based on Wager's 1987 novel 58 Minutes. In this all-action thriller, terrorists take over Washington's Dulles Airport in order to secure the release of a Latin American dictator being delivered to the US for trial.

David Childs