James Clavell, prolific author of epic best-selling novels such as "Shogun" and "Noble House," died yesterday at his home in Vevey, Switzerland. He was 69. His American publishers said he had suffered from cancer; his British publishers said he also had a stroke over the weekend.
Although Mr. Clavell began his career as a screenwriter and director, he found his literary niche in thick novels. He penned at least five best sellers, beginning with "King Rat" in 1962, which was based on his experience in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. The others, all set in the Far East, included "Tai-Pan" "Shogun," "Noble House" and, just last year, "Gai-Jin."
"King Rat" and "Tai-Pan" were turned into feature films; "Shogun" and "Noble House" were made into often-replayed TV series. His 1986 blockbuster set in Iran, "Whirlwind," was auctioned for $5 million, a record at the time.
Although critics disparaged his writing, they acknowledged that his name had marquee value that made him one of the century's most widely read novelists.
The National Review once called Mr. Clavell a "first-rate novelist of the second rank . . . who provides genuinely stimulating literary entertainment without insulting the sensibilities."
Mr. Clavell's writing was never boring. He propelled readers through lightning-paced 1,200- or 1,300-page tomes with a melange of obsessions with war and power, interlaced with international espionage, skulduggery and steamy, forbidden sex.
He wrote with an ability to explain the Far East and its history to Western readers, His sagas typically had vast rosters of characters, each with a singular personality, and at least one strong woman at the center of an intricately woven plot. He steeped himself in research, often moving his family to Hong Kong or wherever a book was based.
Mr. Clavell was born in Sydney, Australia, grew up in England, became a U.S. citizen in 1963.
A captain with the British Royal Artillery in World War II, he was captured by the Japanese. He spent three years in the Changi prison camp in Singapore, where only 10,000 of 150,000 POWs survived.
In Hollywood, Mr. Clavell also directed and produced. His most successful combined effort of writing, producing and directing was "To Sir With Love," a 1967 British film starring Sidney Poitier as a novice teacher in London. Other triple-credit films included "Five Gates to Hell" and "Walk Like a Dragon."
He might never have tried novels but for a 1960 screenwriters' strike that idled him. After the success of "King Rat," he favored the long novel form, which could easily be adapted for motion pictures and television.
The author is survived by his wife of 43 years, April Clavell, and two daughters, Michaela and Holly.