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‘Death Wish’ author Brian Garfield dead at 79

NEW YORK — Brian Garfield, a prolific suspense author best known for his novel “Death Wish,” which became one of Hollywood’s longest-running film franchises, died on Dec. 29 at his home in Pasadena, Calif. He was 79.

His wife, Bina, said the cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease.

A distant relation of Mark Twain’s, Mr. Garfield wrote more than 70 books, which have sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. Most were westerns, mystery novels, and nonfiction. More than 19 movies were based on his writings.

By far the best known was “Death Wish” (1972), a novel about a classic bleeding-heart liberal New Yorker whose wife and daughter are attacked by muggers; his wife is killed and his daughter is left in a vegetative state. He then becomes a vigilante hellbent on vengeance. Mr. Garfield said his aim was to show “an ordinary guy who descends into madness.”

A feature film based on the novel and starring Charles Bronson was made in 1974; it spawned a series of four other “Death Wish” films, all starring Bronson but not called sequels for copyright reasons. A remake of the original, starring Bruce Willis, was released last year.

The first film was a hit at the box office but divided the critics, some of whom found the premise repulsive and irresponsible.

Vincent Canby, writing in The New York Times, said: “For short-term fun, it exploits very real fears and social problems and suggests simple-minded remedies by waving the American flag much in the fashion that former Vice President Agnew used to do.”

Mr. Garfield, who was unhappy with the film portrayals, wrote a follow-up novel to “Death Wish” called “Death Sentence” (1975), which he called his “penance” for the violence in “Death Wish.” His “Death Sentence” protagonist, who does not shoot to kill, notes: “Any idiot can kill people — and you can’t teach someone a lesson by killing him.”

Mr. Garfield was rarely involved in the film adaptations of his books, deliberately extricating himself from a process he found distasteful even though it meant giving up control.

His 1975 novel “Hopscotch,” which won an Edgar Award, was an exception: He adapted it into a comedy starring Walter Matthau in 1980.

“I’m not really patient enough to put up with that, and I learned that the credit ‘associate producer’ means you’re the only person who’s willing to associate with the producer,” he said in an interview with the website PopMatters in 2008.

“I prefer writing books, because a book belongs to its writer,” he added. “And nobody has the power to tell me how to fix it.”

Brian Francis Wynne Garfield was born on Jan. 26, 1939, in Manhattan. His mother, Frances (O’Brien) Garfield, an artist, was a protégé of Georgia O’Keeffe, and it was O’Keeffe who introduced O’Brien to her future husband, George Garfield, an entrepreneur.

His mother painted covers for The Saturday Review of Books and frequently had writers and artists around the house, so her son grew up comfortable in that milieu. He wrote his first book, “Range Justice,” a western, when he was 18.

Mr. Garfield had asthma, and the family moved to Arizona to ease the condition. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, both in English, from the University of Arizona.

Mr. Garfield played the guitar and in the late 1950s toured the country with a band called “The Palisades,” which had a doo-wop hit called “I Can’t Quit.” He also served in the Army and the Army Reserves from 1957 to 1965.

He was married and divorced twice. He leaves his wife, Bina, whom he married in 1985.

Mr. Garfield enjoyed almost all forms of writing, ranging from “The Thousand-Mile War: World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians” (1969), a nonfiction account of Alaska’s so-called “forgotten war,” to a musical comedy TV movie, “Legs” (1983), about the Rockettes. He did not favor one genre over any other.

In a testament to his versatility, his literary agent, Judy Coppage, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Garfield was the only person to have served as president of both the Western Writers of America and the Mystery Writers of America.

He was also a speedy writer. He said he dashed off “Death Wish” in two weeks, prompting his friends to ask, “What took you so long?”