Wilbur Smith, Best-Selling Author of Swashbuckling Novels, Dies at 88
His books were full of lovers, dysfunctional families, pirates and hunters, and set in locations from ancient Egypt to colonial Africa. They sold in the millions.,
Wilbur Smith, a former accountant whose novels featuring lionhearted heroes, covetous family dynasties, steamy lovers, coldblooded pirates and big-game hunters were said to have sold some 140 million copies in 30 languages, died on Saturday at his home in Cape Town. He was 88.
His death was announced on his website. No cause was specified.
Over more than five decades, Mr. Smith’s historical thrillers and adventure novels, which often spanned several generations and several continents, became a popular franchise of series and sequels.
Reviewing his book “The Diamond Hunters” in The New York Times Book Review in 1972, Martin Levin wrote that “the potpourri Wilbur Smith has assembled is rife with lifelong misunderstandings, undying hates, unbelievably nefarious schemes and nick-of-time rescues — delivered with the deadpan sincerity of the pulp greats.”
Raised on a 30,000-acre cattle ranch in what was then the British protectorate of Rhodesia (and is now Zambia), Mr. Smith was a bookish boy whose strict father discouraged reading (“I don’t think he ever read a book in his life, including mine,” he told The Daily Telegraph in 2007) but went on to draft plots on official paper he lifted from his work at the government’s Inland Revenue Service.
He completed his first manuscript in 1962. Twenty publishers sent telegrams rejecting it. He revised and reduced it, embracing the advice of Charles Pick, the deputy managing director of the publishing house Heinemann, to tell a story that drew more fully on his own experience. “Write only about those things you know well,” Mr. Smith said Mr. Pick advised.
Inspired by the life of his grandfather, who was lured by the Witwatersrand gold rush of the 1880s and fought in the Zulu wars, and by his own upbringing on his father’s ranch, Mr. Smith wrote “When the Lion Feeds,” which was published in 1964.
It became the first in a successful series of what Stephen King in 2006 praised as “swashbuckling novels of Africa” in which “the bodices rip and the blood flows.” Subsequent decades would bring other series, based in Southern Africa and ancient Egypt.
“I wrote about hunting and gold mining and carousing and women,” Mr. Smith said.
He set other books in locales ranging from Antarctica to the Indian Ocean. “Wild Justice” (1979), one of the first of his books to become a best seller in the United States (where it was published as “The Delta Decision”), was the story of the hijacking of a plane off the Seychelles — one of many places Mr. Smith called home. (He also had homes in London, Cape Town, Switzerland and Malta.)
Wilbur Addison Smith was born on Jan. 9, 1933, in Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia (now Kabwe, Zambia). He was named for Wilbur Wright, the aviation pioneer. His father, Herbert, was a rancher who became a sheet metal worker. His mother, Elfreda, was a painter who encouraged his reading.
He contracted cerebral malaria when he was 18 months old. “It probably helped me,” he said later, “because I think you have to be slightly crazy to try to earn a living from writing.” He caught polio when he was a teenager, which resulted in a weakened right leg.
When he was 8, his father gave him a .22-caliber Remington rifle. “I shot my first animal shortly afterward and my father ritually smeared the animal’s blood on my face,” he wrote in his memoir, “On Leopard Rock: A Life of Adventures” (2018). “The blood was the mark of emerging manhood. I refused to bathe for days afterward.”
He attended Michaelhouse, a private boys’ school in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands of South Africa. He started a student newspaper there, but he hated school.
“Michaelhouse was a debilitating experience,” he later recalled. “There was no respect for the pupils. The teachers were brutal, the prefects beat us, and the senior boys bullied us. It was a cycle of violence that kept perpetuating itself.” Reading and writing, he said, became his refuge.
“I couldn’t sing nor dance nor wield a paintbrush worth a damn,” he told the Australian website Booktopia in 2012, “but I could weave a pretty tale.”
He said that he had originally wanted to write about social conditions in South Africa as a journalist, but that his father nudged him toward what he thought was a more stable profession. After graduating from Rhodes University in Grahamstown (now Makhanda), South Africa, with a Bachelor of Commerce degree in 1954, he worked for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company for four years, then joined his father’s sheet metal manufacturing business. When that company faltered, he became a government tax assessor.
He married Anne Rennie in 1957. They divorced in 1962 after having two children: a son, Shaun, and a daughter, Christian. He married Jewell Slabbart in 1964; they had a son, Lawrence, before that marriage also ended in divorce. In 1971, he married Danielle Thomas; she died in 1999. The next year he married Mokhiniso Rakhimova, who was 39 years his junior and whom he met in a London bookstore. He adopted her son, Dieter Schmidt, from a previous marriage. Complete information about survivors was not immediately available.
A few of Mr. Smith’s books have been adapted into films, including “Shout at the Devil” (1976), which starred Lee Marvin and Roger Moore.
Mr. Smith had his detractors, who saw some of his writing as glorifying colonialism and furthering racial and gender stereotypes. And he was not always a favorite of critics.
He maintained, as he told the Australian publication The Age, that he paid little attention. “The snootiness of critics is so silly,” he said. “They’re judging Great Danes against Pekingese. I’m not writing that literature — I’ve never set out to write it. I’m writing stories.”
“Now, when I sit down to write the first page of a novel, I never give a thought to who will eventually read it,” he is quoted on his website, recalling the advice of his first publisher, Mr. Pick: “He said, ‘Don’t talk about your books with anybody, even me, until they are written.’ Until it is written, a book is merely smoke on the wind.”
Later in his career, Mr. Smith was churning out two books annually, with the help of a stable of co-authors.
“For the past few years,” he said when he announced the collaboration, “my fans have made it very clear that they would like to read my novels and revisit my family of characters faster than I can write them.”