Rodney Whitaker

Author, as 'Trevanian', of 'The Eiger Sanction' who kept most of his other pseudonyms to himself

Thursday 22 December 2005 01:00 GMT
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Rodney Whitaker ("Trevanian"), novelist and film and communications scholar: born Granville, New York 12 June 1931; married Diane Brandon (two sons, two daughters); died 14 December 2005.

One of the few certain facts - in this case, surely, as fixed and immutable as the laws of the Medes and the Persians - about the American writer Rodney Whitaker, known for some years as "Trevanian", is that he is dead. He died on 14 December, somewhere in the west of England, almost certainly aged 74. Or thereabouts.

Another certain fact is that he married, sometime during the 1960s, Diane Brandon, and begat two sons and two daughters. After that, we are on increasingly shaky ground.

In 1972, what seems to have been his first thriller (though not his first book), a spy story satirising the James Bond books called The Eiger Sanction, was published in the United States (a year later in the UK) under the name Trevanian. The Eiger Sanction is the utterly amoral, suspenseful, wincingly funny and at times hilariously rude tale of how Dr Jonathan Hemlock, an assassin working for the top secret American CII intelligence organisation (they make the CIA look like pikers) has to kill, or "sanction", various no-goods for the price of a very expensive painting (Hemlock is an art fiend who owns a good many dodgily acquired Impressionists).

Hemlock must also assassinate one of three men who, with him, are attempting to climb the north face of the Eiger in Switzerland (a resumé can by no means do justice to Whitaker's gift for contrivance) but, since he has no means of knowing the identity of his victim, he decides to bump off all three, just in case.

The climbing sections of the novel are breathtakingly described and make riveting reading. The later film (1975, starring and directed by Clint Eastwood) featured a beautifully literate script by Whitaker himself, the action-adventure writer Warren Murphy, and Hal Dresner (whose 1963 novel The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books is one of the great comic masterpieces of the 1960s); it also contained some of the most dangerous mountaineering scenes ever filmed. The sex scenes in the book are equally memorable, especially one in which Hemlock seduces his assignment-briefer Felicity Arce (pronounced Arse) so that she keeps interrupting her info-flow with yelps of passion which are interspersed with Hemlock's own strangulated grunts.

The Eiger Sanction was a success, although almost at once reviewers were faced with the impossible task of explaining to their readers why a book issued in the latter half of the 20th century should appear under a moniker that smacked of long-ago authors' whimsy ("Ouida", "Bartimeus", "Evoe", "Taffrail", "Ganpat", etc.). They couldn't. For the very good reason that promo information worth even half a dime was not vouchsafed to them by the publishers - for the equally good reason that the book's author wasn't about to give it.

This is where the conspiracy theorists kick in (a website devoted to "Trevanian" contains some brain-racking stuff). Some Whitaker addicts insist that Trevanian is an anagram (of what?); others that he borrowed the name from a Sir John Trevanian, who escaped from a castle in Essex during the English Civil War. On the face of it, this latter does seem quite likely, since his second Hemlock novel, The Loo Sanction (US 1973, UK 1974), seems to have been written while Whitaker was on sabbatical from an American university (probably Texas), partly at Essex University. Except, of course, by the time he wrote Loo, the name had already been used on The Eiger Sanction.

The waters were muddied even further in 1984 when a Washington bureaucrat, James Hashian, told The New York Times that he was the originator of the name "Trevanian" - although he spelled it "Travanian" - and that he had sold the name to "another writer". More recently, Whitaker himself informed a newspaper in Albany, New York, that his wife had chosen the name "after reading the historian G.M. Trevelyan" - which doesn't make an awful lot of sense: why not call him "Trevelyan"?

In 1976 Whitaker changed tack with The Main, a fine police procedural set in Montreal. Shibumi came out in 1979, a complex thriller again featuring a professional killer (Nicholai Hel) who lives in the Hautes-Pyrénées in France (like his creator). Shibumi was another popular success and, in a rare interview (it may have been his first) for The New York Times, Whitaker indicated that he wanted to put Trevanian out to grass, and hoped from now on to write "erudite little novels for special audiences".

Alas for hopes. His next novel, The Summer of Katya (1983, a quite superb psychological thriller set just prior to the Great War and turning on horrifying sexual secrets) was a roaring bestseller. Perhaps because of this, Whitaker lay low for 15 years, writing busily, but publishing nothing.

Or probably publishing nothing. He told The New York Times that he operated "under five different names on several subjects - theology, law, aesthetics, film - and want to keep my readership separate". One of his pseudonyms, he revealed only this year to the Albany paper the Times Union, was "Benat Le Cagot" - which also happens to be the name of one of the chief characters in Shibumi. A rather more certain pseudonym was "Nicholas Seare", under which he produced a couple of bawdy medieval romps.

Whitaker undoubtedly wrote about film, and under his real name: The Language of Film (1970) is still regarded as one of the most influential textbooks on movie storytelling. He also taught film at the University of Texas for some years.

Rodney Whitaker was almost certainly born in June 1931, probably in Granville, New York (a date of January 1925, which on occasion appears in reference books, is more than likely the birth-date of James Hashian). He probably grew up in towns in upstate New York. His last novel, The Crazyladies of Pearl Street, which came out earlier this year, is set in the slums of Albany; Whitaker admitted the book was largely autobiographical.

An enterprising reporter on the American Statesman in Austin, Texas, prowled through University of Texas records in 1998 and discovered that Whitaker earned a doctorate in communications and film from Northwestern University, served in the navy in the Korean War, had been chair of the communications division at Dana College, Nebraska, and won a Fulbright scholarship to study in England.

Whitaker himself, probably from the late 1960s onwards, spent most of his time in England - at an unidentified location in the West Country - and a small village in the Basque region of France. His agent, Michael V. Carlisle, comments that Whitaker found the intellectual climate of England rather more stimulating than that of America under Presidents Reagan and Bush.

In 1998 he broke his Trevanian silence with a western, Incident at Twenty-Mile (at the moment under option to the British film producer Bill Kenwright) and two years later produced a volume of 13 tales, Hot Night in the City, collected from a wide range of periodicals (The Yale Literary Magazine, Antioch, Playboy, etc), mainly with a noir-ish tinge to them. His final, untitled novel, which he had been working on through the 1990s, was set at the time of the French Revolution.

In many ways this eclecticism sums Whitaker up. He was a literary jester, a magnificent tale-teller, whose range of interests was vast and whose scope for bafflement was formidable.

Jack Adrian

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