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A Richmond writer's elusive and uncooperative hero beats his unauthorized biography to the punch: He dies.

O Captain! His Captain!


Dean King is quoted in this morning's New York Times, his voice is on NPR's "Morning Edition," his phone is ringing directly into voicemail. It is Friday, Jan. 7, and the world knows Patrick O'Brian is dead. Dean King knows Patrick O'Brian, and so the world is getting to know Dean King, or trying.

This was not the plan; not quite.

The plan was: It is April, and King's unauthorized biography of O'Brian debuts on the nonfiction top-10. It is a sympathetic but unflinching book-length version of the November 1998 New York magazine article in which the Richmond writer first revealed the best-selling and internationally beloved novelist's secret past: the real name, the buried first marriage, the fake nationality. The biography completes the picture, fills in the blanks, points up the ironies and parallels between O'Brian's life and his fiction. It is not so much the work of a conscientious enemy as that of a scrupulous enthusiast, but maybe it gets O'Brian himself to finally talk, to reconcile with the son he abandoned, to come clean and accept the world's silly forgiveness.

The plan was still the plan in late December. That was when Dean King sat in the glassy office of his West End home, sat near the spent Christmas tree and blankly considered the unruly stack of pages on a nearby stand. He rubbed his eyes. In less than a week he would return these last galleys to the New York publisher; would give the last gentle push against his hero's facade and reveal the unflattering patchwork behind.

As scheduled, King returned the final draft Jan. 3. And was as unaware as the rest of the world that O'Brian, 85, had died the day before.

Pound for pound, reader for reader, O'Brian arguably was the best-loved author of the 1990s. Though he began writing it more than 30 years ago, only in the last decade did enthusiastic reviews and ecstatic word-of-mouth finally bear his ultimately 20-volume series of historical novels into best-sellerdom. (The last, "Blue at the Mizzen," appeared in October.) Interest in O'Brian himself likewise surged, as with any new celebrity, but it was unusually frustrated. Save for a few short, scripted public appearances and fewer interviews, the octogenarian author dwelt as quietly as possible in southern France with his wife and vineyard.

King came upon the British author's seafaring series — set during the Napoleonic wars of the early 1800s — in 1991. He devoured the first 16 books in a few months, and while awaiting the 17th, began his study of the history O'Brian evoked. What King learned about the workings of ships and sailors of that period became his "Sea of Words" and "Harbors and High Seas," companion volumes which explain the terms and travels of characters in the O'Brian series, and are sold next to it in bookstores. But as King's enthusiasm for all things O'Brian grew to include the author himself, he became increasingly "intrigued by his secrecy."

"What a shame it would be not to have the story of his life — whether he wants it or not," he argued. Henry Holt & Co. publishing agreed, and he got the job. But while King was manifestly O'Brian's biggest fan, the author withheld his cooperation.

There were other obstacles. Ireland, O'Brian's stated homeland, held no record of the author's birth. With the help of a genealogist, King eventually found it — in England — along with the official name change, the surprising marriage certificates, and — even more surprising — the cooperative relatives.

O'Brian — Richard Patrick Russ — had been married to a handsome but "barely literate" Welsh woman, King says, and as World War II loomed, he left her and their two children, one severely handicapped, "destitute and in trouble." O'Brian not only changed names and residences, he invented an Irish backstory for himself. In 1949, he and a second wife took the act to France (where she died in 1998).

King says the rest of the details will have to wait until April, but says he sees the author's expatriate literary accomplishment in part as a manifold act of atonement for his earlier choices. In one of the series' later novels, for example, a major character makes a difficult decision to adopt two young children: "Clearly that's [the character] redeeming O'Brian" and his failure as a parent.

"Patrick O'Brian failed in many of his relationships," King says. "But he's created ... some of the most profound literature about friendship and love and relationships, and that's what great novels are about."

And so the plan now is for King to rewrite his introduction and epilogue, change some tenses, and wait for the cruelest month, when instead of or on behalf of O'Brian, it may be he who must talk, or be reconciled, or

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