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Brian Moore, 1921­1999 

Wednesday, Jan 20 1999
Photo by Jerry Bauer
THE MOST ACCOMPLISHED AND LEAST fashionable writer in Los Angeles died last week. Brian Moore, 77, was the author of a remarkable collection of 20 novels under his own name and a few more written under pseudonyms early in -- he would say prior to -- his career. And yet few of you have likely read one of those books; many of you may never even have heard of him, though you may have seen some of the films based on his books, the most recent of which were The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and Black Robe. I didn't know of him either until I stumbled into his writing class at UCLA, where he was a Regent's Professor some two decades ago. After he noted a particularly florid phrasing of mine, smiled and said, "Don't do that," I took to thinking of Moore as a coach -- albeit a rather small, gentlemanly, unusually intelligent coach. The real lessons were, of course, in his books.

For his regular readers, I suspect, Moore was that thing he so often wrote about, a secret passion. He was a one-man book club: Every couple of years, give or take a few false starts, a Moore novel would appear. Often, they were wonderful; occasionally, they were less so; but they were always good -- driven by compelling characters (male and female), sparingly written with an unaffected prose, well-plotted (he was an unheralded master of suspense) and superbly crafted. Even those books that did little for me I found difficult to put down. He worked very hard, he said, to make his books accessible to the average reader, to take that reader away from everything else in his or her life for a few hours.

More than 30 years ago, the English critic Christopher Ricks wrote what remains perhaps the best short analysis of Moore's work: "Mr. Moore's [novels make themselves] accessible to everyone, not by offering different things to different men, but by concentrating simply, directly and bravely on the primary sufferings and passions that everybody feels." That said, although he was given to a few idiosyncratic cliches -- a character and a mirror in the same room, for instance, usually foreshadowed an introspective gaze -- Moore rarely repeated himself. Among the many who have noted his range with admiration was Graham Greene, explaining why Moore was his "favorite living novelist": "Each book of his is dangerous, unpredictable, and amusing. He treats the novel as a trainer treats a wild beast."

Moore was in many respects anomalous. He seemed somehow of another time (he said once that his father, a Belfast doctor, was in spirit a Victorian) and place, yet also of the here and now -- he worked with Alfred Hitchcock (and did a drop-dead impression of him), Claude Chabrol and Bruce Beresford; reflected the influence of Jorge Luis Borges; and lived down the beach from Joan Didion. The books moved with him, and he with them, from Europe to Canada to California and beyond; ever adaptable, when his own experiences failed to support the work, he turned to history -- or, rather, those points at which certain questions of morality, conscience and faith intersect history. Thus, the 17th-century French Jesuits and Indians of Black Robe, the good Cardinal Bem and the bad Eastern European far right of The Color of Blood, the Jean-Bertrand Aristide­based character of No Other Life, the French war criminal hidden by the Roman Catholic Church of The Statement (based on the real-life Paul Touvier), the 19th-century French conquest of North Africa of The Magician's Wife, his final novel.

He was a hard man to pin down; that was his strength and, for some no doubt, his weakness. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times, he failed to win. In the end it may well be the sum of his work, rather than any one book, that he's remembered for. When talking to him for a 1992 L.A. Times Magazine profile (available on the Weekly's Web site at www.laweekly.com), I suggested that this body of work had earned him the right to slow down. Moore said, "I don't write the books to make them a body of work; I write the books to keep me interested. And I write the next book because I'm happy when I'm doing it." Unhappy, in other words, when not doing it. In that same interview, he said that, had his son ever come to him and said he wanted to be a writer, Moore would have "shrunk a little," because he had seen so many writers fall prey to bitterness and drink. Moore did have the sharp Irish wit and he did drink ("like all Irishmen"), yet he also understood that he'd been one of the fortunate, that he'd had a "wonderful literary life."

For an epitaph, that ain't bad.

Reach the writer at tchristie@laweekly.com

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