Anthony Price, whose string of espionage novels, rich in historical references and complex characters, drew comparisons to the work of John le Carré, died on May 30 in South East London. He was 90.
His daughter, Katherine James, said the cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Mr. Price, whose first spy novel, “The Labyrinth Makers,” came out in 1970, was among several thriller writers who moved the espionage genre beyond the slick shenanigans of early-period James Bond as the Cold War calcified.
“The Labyrinth Makers” was the first of 19 novels featuring David Audley, an analyst for the British secret service, who was often the protagonist but sometimes a secondary figure. Mr. Price was not content with simple linear plots; he loved to burden his characters with ghosts from the past and explore how long-ago actions influenced events years or even centuries later.
His stories ranged far and wide. “Other Paths to Glory” (1974), which The Daily Telegraph of London named one of the top 20 spy thrillers of all time, involves both a nuclear summit and the Battle of the Somme during World War I.
In “Sion Crossing” (1984), a character named Oliver Latimer, a sort of rival of Audley’s, travels to the United States and gets involved in a mystery in Georgia related to the Civil War. “A New Kind of War” (1988) begins in Greece in 1945, then shifts to the Teutoburg Forest in Germany and makes reference to a battle the Romans fought there 2,000 years earlier.
If Mr. Price’s books never became blockbusters, they did garner critical praise.
“He does not yet enjoy the same degree of fame as John le Carré, Len Deighton or Frederick Forsyth,” John Gross wrote in The New York Times in 1986, reviewing “Here Be Monsters,” “but he can more than survive comparison with any of them. He is far more subtle than Mr. Forsyth and much less gimmicky than Mr. Deighton, and if he can’t quite match Mr. le Carré’s doomy intensity, he has the compensating virtues of (relatively speaking) greater directness and solid good sense.”
Anthony Price was born on Aug. 16, 1928, in Hertfordshire, north of London, where his mother, Kathleen (Lawrence) Price, a commercial artist, had returned from India during her pregnancy while his father, Walter, remained there, working as an accountant. Anthony rarely saw his father during childhood, and after his mother died when he was a boy, he was raised by an aunt in Canterbury.
After doing his national service from 1947 to 1949, first in the Royal Signals and then in the Royal Army Educational Corps, he attended Merton College, Oxford, studying history and earning a master of arts. In 1953 he married Ann Stone. About the same time he took a job at The Oxford Times; by 1972 he had worked his way up to editor, a position he held until he retired in 1988.
Early in his career at the paper, he began writing book reviews for its sister publication, The Mail, to supplement his income. In a 2011 interview with Nick Jones for the blog Existential Ennui, he recalled receiving what turned out to be a particularly memorable assignment from his editor, Hartford Thomas, to write about the first volume of a little-known author’s trilogy.
“He said, ‘I’ve got this book, which has been rejected by my children’s reviewer as being boring,’ ” Mr. Price said. “ ‘But it’s written by a local author, and I think we ought to review it. So would you like it?’ So I said, ‘Yes, sir’ — you called editors ‘sir’ then, you see. And Hartford said: ‘Well, off you go. Four hundred words.’ ”
Mr. Price decided to visit the author.
“I was the first journalist he’d ever seen,” Mr. Price said, “so he lent me the proof copy of the second volume, and the galley proofs of the third, annotated in his own hand. And so I reviewed ‘The Fellowship of the Ring.’ ”
He gave the book and the author, who was of course J. R. R. Tolkien, a positive notice.
Mr. Price settled into a niche of reviewing crime fiction and military history, two areas of interest to him. After 10 or 12 years of this, an editor at the Victor Gollancz publishing house asked if he’d write a book about crime fiction. He declined but asked if he could try writing a thriller instead, and that was how he became a novelist.
“I suppose my books are simply a distillation of all that military history and crime fiction interbreeding,” he told the blog.
Mr. Price’s books were the basis of a 1983 British television series, “Chessgame,” with Terence Stamp as Audley. His feeling about the series?
“Dreadful,” he told the blog.
Mr. Price’s wife died in 2012. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by two sons, James and Simon, and five grandchildren.
Mr. Price’s last novel, “The Memory Trap,” appeared in 1989, as the Soviet Union and Communist systems in Eastern Europe were beginning to unravel — taking away the villain, essentially, in many of his books. He was, he admitted, surprised that the Soviet Union fell “with a whimper, not a bang,” as he put it; he had feared the Cold War would end cataclysmically.
“I always felt that the past is lying in wait for the present,” he said. “I’m not sure whether I’m right, ever since the Soviet Union collapsed in a way that I never expected. That was another thing that made me decide to retire, along with my health and other factors: It made me think that it was time to quit while I was ahead, because Audley was no longer as clever as he thought.”