Millions of readers knew Patrick O’Brian as a master and commander of spellbinding fiction – and if his storytelling gifts spilled over into real life, his fans didn’t mind. On the contrary: When O’Brian died at 85 on Jan. 2, in Dublin, there was a sense that the 20 novels in his nautical Aubrey-Maturin series were well worth whatever genteel fakery he’d indulged in over the course of his life.
”It’s part of that creative mind at work,” says Dean King, whose biography of O’Brian is due in April from Henry Holt and Co. It was King who revealed in 1998 that the reclusive author was not Irish, as he had long intimated, but instead Patrick Russ, born outside of London in 1914, the son of a doctor.
Russ – who lived most of his life in a Provencal village – achieved some success as an author of Kiplingesque adventure novels before reinventing himself as O’Brian after WWII. But it wasn’t until he was well into the Aubrey-Maturin novels, the first of which, Master and Commander, came out in 1969, that he became a best-selling author, with 2 million copies in print. (He’d finished several chapters of the 21st book before his death.) The books, about a bluff British Royal Navy commander, Jack Aubrey, and his companion, the surgeon/naturalist/spy Stephen Maturin, during the Napoleonic Wars, offer far more than shipboard derring-do. Wrote the Chicago Sun-Times, ”He is one of the very few writers who not only entertain us vastly but alter us morally.” Says King: ”He blew the genre away. His books were probably the most profound literature on friendship of this half century.” And all the more remarkable coming from a man so contentedly estranged from himself.