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Novelist William Diehl dies at 81

By MARY MacDONALD, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 11/27/06

William Diehl, who took readers to exotic settings in novels such as "Thai Horse" and "Primal Fear," died unexpectedly Friday (11/24/2006) at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

Diehl, who was 81, died of an aortic embolism, said his wife, former newscaster Virginia Gunn.

A funeral is not planned, but family and friends are organizing a memorial service.

"It will be a celebration of his life," said Gunn.

Diehl, who lived in Woodstock with his wife, was a prolific author whose first novel, "Sharky's Machine," had its genesis in a Fulton County courtroom, said Michael Parver and Don Smith, both 40-year friends of the author who spoke by phone Sunday from Diehl's home.

Diehl, then 50, and bored by the trial he was serving on as juror, started writing fiction on a notepad, Parver said.

The book, published in 1978, became a best-seller and, later, a movie starring Burt Reynolds.

Diehl, who walked down a red carpet on Peachtree Street at the film's Atlanta premiere, was bemused by his relative fame and fortune, his friends said Sunday.

"He was so stunned, you couldn't believe it," said Parver, a retired public relations adviser. The book deal had come at a low point in Diehl's life, Parver said. Diehl, a former freelance photographer, writer for The Atlanta Constitution and editor at Atlanta Magazine, was jobless and having trouble paying bills.

When his agent called to tell him "Sharky's Machine" would be published, the phone line went dead, Parver said. "He hadn't paid the bill," he said.

His friends and relatives would later find themselves turned into characters in his later works. Parver, who became a dirty cop in "Hooligans," took the alter-ego as a compliment. "He had a wonderful sense of humor."

Diehl, a veteran of World War II where he served as a ball turret gunner aboard a B-24, was a 21-year resident of St. Simons Island. He is survived by his wife, five children and eight grandchildren. He was writing a 10th novel at the time of his death. The book was expected to published sometime next year, his friends said.

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