Obituaries: Roderick Thorp

Jack Adrian
Friday 21 May 1999 23:02 BST

THE AMERICAN writer Roderick Thorp - a man of modest talents with a modest output (around a dozen novels, including a couple of collaborations, in a career that lasted just under 40 years) - saw two of his books transformed into movies that influenced, and virtually defined, two separate generations.

The Detective (1966), a gritty essay in hardboiled neo-realism, featured big-city cops with few qualms about violence and a cynical disregard for who gets hurt, villains or victims alike. The protagonist was Joe Leland, a detective on the edge of burn-out, with too many cases and a private life heading for the violent ward. Hollywood used it as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra, softening the burn- out, hardening the violence, and to an extent setting the scene for Don Siegel's later "Dirty Harry" saga (and incidentally revealing that Sinatra could be a more intelligent actor than many gave him credit for).

In Nothing Lasts Forever (1979) Leland is out of the police force, an ageing security consultant who, through sheer bad luck, finds himself trapped in an office high- rise during a terrorist siege, with his daughter one of the hostages. A decade later this simple plot received the full Hollywood makeover, with Jeb Stuart's and Steve de Souza's screen-play turning Leland into super- tough New York cop John McClane, a Vietnam vet with a creative line in violent booby-traps, played with stone-faced panache by Bruce Willis, and his daughter into an estranged wife (a perfect casting of Bonnie Bedelia in sweet female victim mode).

The result was an extraordinary brew of stunts, special effects and sudden death, backed up by a barrage of violent explosions and roaring fireballs, all directed with calculated finesse - and a good deal of glee - by the commercials king John McTiernan. The slightly lumbering Nothing Lasts Forever became, of course, Die Hard, one of the biggest-grossing movies of 1988, and spawned a dynasty (Die Hard IV is already in the pipeline). It is now a yardstick against which Hollywood judges the urban action movie.

Roderick Mayne Thorp Jnr was born in New York City (the Bronx) in 1936. His father ran a private detective agency, for which Thorp himself later worked when in his twenties, although, after graduating from City College in New York, he had numerous other jobs, including selling cars, working in haberdashery and insurance, and founding a catering company.

His first novel Into the Forest (1961), a non-genre work, sold poorly. With his second, The Detective, he struck a rich vein; the book was a bestseller, generating a small fortune in royalties, before Hollywood took it up, enabling Thorp to become a full-time writer.

Although he dealt in genre fiction he did not concentrate on crime or mystery - Westfield (1977), for instance, is a family saga. Nor did he initiate. Though critics have celebrated The Detective as a new style of tough mystery narrative, Thorp was simply working in a long tradition of hardboiled realism, and, although he cast a spotlight on the workings of the official cop rather than the private eye, other writers - such as Evan Hunter (Ed McBain) and Donald Westlake - had already mined that particular seam in books and countless short stories in the monthly digests of the 1950s, with exclamatory titles like Man-hunt, Mantrap, Guilty!, Pursuit!, Hunted!, Trapped!

It cannot be said, either, that Thorp was an instant success on this side of the Atlantic. Nothing Lasts Forever, in particular, was less than impactful on first appearance, failing to find a publisher until two years after Stateside issue, and then only as a paperback.

Thorp, however, was always enormously grateful that his books seemed to excite the attentions of movie producers, who thereupon wished only to shower him with contracts and money. Throughout his career he tried to give back something of that which he had gained, founding a successful creative writing programme at the School of American Studies of Ramapo College in New Jersey, and later starting and subsequently directing the influential Palm Springs Writers' Conference.

Roderick Thorp's latest bestseller, River (1995), is a chilling fictionalisation of the notorious Green River serial slayings of the 1980s, in which over 50 young women in the Seattle area, in the Pacific Northwest, many of them prostitutes and drifters, were gruesomely murdered. This, too, has been optioned by Hollywood.

Roderick Mayne Thorp, writer: born New York 1 September 1936; married (two sons); died Oxnard, California 28 April 1999.

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