Stuart Woods, Prolific Best-Selling Thriller Author, Dies at 84

Stuart Woods, a prolific, prizewinning mystery writer who churned out multiple best sellers during what his memoir duly described as “an extravagant life,” died on July 22 at his home in Washington, Conn. He was 84.

The death was confirmed by his wife, Jeanmarie Woods, his only immediate survivor. She did not specify a cause.

Mr. Woods, who was also a swashbuckling licensed private jet plane pilot and trans-Atlantic sailor with homes in New York, Maine and Florida, tacked into his career as a novelist somewhat haphazardly.

But once he became a writer, he parlayed a $7,500 advance for his first novel, “Chiefs,” in 1981 into an award-winning career as a one-man fiction factory, turning out as many as five thrillers a year, one of which became the basis of a six-hour CBS mini-series in 1983.

His oeuvre over four decades included dozens of New York Times best sellers featuring, among other characters, Stone Barrington, a suave, libidinous New York lawyer and former police detective; Ed Eagle, a Santa Fe defense lawyer; William Henry Lee IV, a Georgia senator who is elected president; Holly Barker, a retired Army major and Florida police chief recruited by the C.I.A.; and Rick Barron, a police detective who becomes chief of production for a Hollywood studio in the 1930s.

Mr. Woods also wrote a travel book, “A Romantic’s Guide to the Country Inns of Britain and Ireland” (1979).

“I have a fevered imagination,” he told The New York Times in 1999. “And a rich fantasy life, which helps with the sex scenes.”

He typically wrote two hours a day, until about noon, turning out as much as a full chapter in that time. Before submitting a book, he said, he’d complete “a half-dozen chapters in the beginning and a brief synopsis of the rest, and send it to my publisher.”

“When they accept that,” he added, “then I ignore the synopsis and do whatever I want.”

His memoir, “An Extravagant Life,” was published in June.

Referring to Mr. Woods’s “clockwork” production, the Times critic Janet Maslin likened him to a popular and similarly industrious romance novelist, calling him “the Nora Roberts of mystery best-sellerdom.”

Mr. Woods and his character Stone Barrington both frequented Elaine’s, the literary hangout on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. To keep the saloon alive at one point, Mr. Woods tried to buy it from its salty proprietor, Elaine Kaufman, when it was suffering financially.

Elaine’s ultimately closed, in 2011, but Mr. Woods’s muse remained unencumbered.

“I have a theory that writers block is the fear that the book is not going to be as good as you’ve been telling all of your friends,” he said, “so if you never finish, they never find you out.” He added, “It takes a concerted act of will, every day, that you work on it.”

One of Mr. Woods’s many novels centered on the New York lawyer Stone Barrington.Credit…The New York Times

Stuart Chevalier Lee was born on Jan. 9, 1938, in west-central Manchester, Ga., to Dorothy (Callaway) Lee, a church organist, and Stuart Franklin Lee, a gas station owner who fled to another state after robbing a bottling plant when his son was 2. When Stuart was 6, his mother married Angier David Woods, and the boy took his stepfather’s surname.

After graduating from the University of Georgia with a degree in sociology in 1959, Mr. Woods served in the Air National Guard. He migrated to New York to become a journalist but wound up working for an advertising agency there, then in London.

He later moved to Ireland, where he began to write his first novel. But he was soon diverted when he became enamored with sailing and began racing. In 1976, in a race from Plymouth, England, to Newport, R.I., that took him 45 days, he finished about in the middle of the field.

He then wrote a nonfiction account of the race, “Blue Water, Green Skipper,” and, after returning to Georgia, sold the American rights to W.W. Norton & Company. It also agreed to publish “Chiefs,” the thriller that Mr. Woods had begun eight years earlier.

“Chiefs,” he said, had been inspired by his discovery, at age 9, of his grandfather’s police chief badge in the family’s attic. The grandfather had been wearing the badge, bloodied and pitted by shotgun pellets, when he was killed in 1927 in a case of mistaken identity by a gunman delirious with malaria.

The plot revolves around three generations of law enforcement officers, beginning with a cotton farmer who is anointed a police chief in the 1920s and tasked with solving a teenager’s ritual murder.

“Chiefs” won an Edgar Allan Poe Award for best first novel from the Mystery Writers of America and was adapted into the CBS mini-series, which starred Charlton Heston, Danny Glover and Billy Dee Williams.

In 2010, Mr. Woods received a Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, France’s most prestigious award for crime and detective fiction, for his novel “Imperfect Strangers.”

His first marriage ended in divorce. He married Jeanmarie Cooper in 2013.

Mr. Woods was deeply committed to the Author’s Guild, a professional organization, recalling the support he received from it as a fledgling author. He appreciated his readers, too, although his patience with them sometimes wore thin.

In “Dark Harbor,” Mr. Woods wrote enigmatically: “Whoever had killed Dick and his family had vacuumed as he left the house through the terrace door. Very neat fellow. Very smart, too.” The passage left a number of readers bewildered.

But in more than one interview, Mr. Woods was unwilling to play Holmes to the reader’s Watson.

“Don’t ask about the vacuum cleaner,” he wrote on his website, “and before you ask questions about the plots of any other novels, remember: I never explain! It’s all in the book, figure it out!”

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