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A best-seller here and a bigger seller in Europe, novelist Noah Gordon dies at 95

Mr. Gordon's books have sold more than 25 million copies in 34 languages.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Nearly two decades after his mid-1960s debut novel spent 26 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, Noah Gordon was trying to regain his footing as a writer.

His subsequent novels had drawn smaller audiences, but then he chanced upon the idea of writing about an Englishman who travels to Persia in the 11th century to study at what was then the world’s best medical school.

After spending months in a room of ancient maps at Clark University researching the novel — often his favorite part of the writing process — Mr. Gordon retreated to the office above the garage of his Ashfield home to write “The Physician,” published in 1986.

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“I would disappear into the 11th century,” he told the Globe in 2015. “I really felt as though I was living in that time.”

So, apparently, did his millions of readers, most in Europe. Mr. Gordon, who lived quietly and almost anonymously in Massachusetts while commanding celebrity-status audiences in Germany and Spain, died Nov. 22 in his home at NewBridge on the Charles in Dedham. He was 95.

“The Physician,” the first of what became a trilogy, sold more than 10 million copies, and inspired a 2013 movie and an award-winning musical in Spain. In total, his books have sold more than 25 million copies in 34 languages.

At home in the United States, however, sales sometimes were modest, with notable exceptions such as “The Rabbi,” his 1965 debut that spent a half-year on the best-seller list.

“He’d go to Europe and be treated like a king, or a rock star,” said his son, Michael, who lives in Barcelona and is his father’s literary agent.

It’s not that Mr. Gordon’s work didn’t attract praise and awards in the United States. In 1993, the Society of American Historians awarded him its James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction.

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But a year earlier, several of his books were simultaneously on Germany’s best-seller lists, including “Shaman,” which topped all hardcover editions, and “The Physician,” which was No. 1 among paperbacks.

“I’m always asked why I’m more popular in Europe. I don’t know,” Mr. Gordon told the Globe in 2000, when he had finished ahead of authors such as John Irving, Tom Wolfe, and John Grisham for the readers’ choice prize in a contest sponsored by the books publication Que Leer in Spain.

Richly evocative, his novels included descriptive passages like the opening of chapter four in “The Rabbi.”

Michael, the protagonist, is certain that his grandfather’s beard had once been dark, but he only remembered it as “a full, white bush that Isaac Rivkind shampooed with care every third night and combed with love and vanity, so that it lay smooth and soft-looking beneath his tough and swarthy face down to the third button of his shirt. His beard was the only soft thing about him. He had a rapacious hawk’s nose and the eyes of a disgusted eagle. The top of his head was bald and shiny as polished bone, set in a circlet of frizzled hair that never achieved the whiteness of the beard, but remained a dark gray until the day of his death.”

Mr. Gordon’s formidable knowledge of his subjects, meanwhile, caught the attention of critics even for books that weren’t among his most popular.

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That was the case with “The Death Committee” (1969). The title refers to the physicians and hospital staff that hold a mortality conference to decide if a death had been preventable.

“The research which the author puts into this book proves one of its strongest points, for it comes across on almost every page,” critic Robert E. Walsh wrote in a 1969 Globe review. “Noah Gordon has succeeded in writing a book which takes the reader behind the scenes of a modern teaching hospital and helps the reader to see and understand what goes into the making of a modern surgeon.”

Born in Worcester on Nov. 11, 1926, Mr. Gordon was a son of Robert Gordon, a pawnbroker, and Rose Melnikoff Gordon.

Upon graduating from Classical High School in 1945, Mr. Gordon volunteered for military service and was in the Army infantry, stationed in California, when World War II ended.

“I finished my service unheroically as an Army clerk in a boring job in San Francisco, grateful that I had survived, grateful that I had never had to kill a human being,” he wrote in his biography, posted on his website.

Using the GI Bill, he attended Boston University. His parents hoped he’d study medicine, but “I wanted to be a newspaperman, and I yearned to write the kind of novels that made me love books,” he wrote.

He graduated in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and received a master’s in creative writing from BU in 1951, the year he married Lorraine Seay.

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They had met as undergraduates on a triple-date when each was seeing someone else. She was a Clark University student sitting with two others in the back seat, and he was one of three in the front seat.

“I listened to this fellow and thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s so smart,’ " she said.

Over the years, she and her husband worked together on a medical journal, and as she formerly handled business affairs for his work as a writer.

“He made my life wonderful because he made it so clear that he loved me. His love completed my life for me,” she said. “And he also respected me as an intelligent woman. Growing up before the women’s movement, that meant a lot and enabled us to work together.”

They also had three children, including their daughters, Lise, who lives in Watertown, and Jamie Beth, of Chestnut Hill.

“The family is what mattered most to my husband,” Lorraine said. “He just cherished the time that we had with them and he was so proud of his kids and his grandchildren.”

After they married, the couple lived in New York City, where Mr. Gordon was a junior editor at Avon Publishing and a small magazine.

They returned to Massachusetts, where he worked for what was then the Worcester Telegram and then at the Boston Herald. He added editing for a medical journal to his workload and became the Herald’s science editor before beginning to write novels.

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They previously had lived in Framingham, where his garden grew ever larger, before moving to Ashfield.

When preparing a new book, “he would do research for several years,” Lise said. “And then he would do a very detailed hundred-page outline.”

She added that “as much as he loved to write, his favorite thing was being a reporter. The actual writing was work.”

A private service has been held for Mr. Gordon, who in addition to his wife and children leaves four grandchildren.

Because of Mr. Gordon’s best-seller status, “people were sometimes taken aback at how low key and relaxed he was. He had minimal ego and just loved to get to know people,” Michael said. “That also has led him to become so well-liked.”

Mr. Gordon never took that for granted.

“I am grateful to every reader, for enabling me to spend my life as a scribbler of tales,” he wrote.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.