Mystery, Murder and Elaine’s: Novelist Stuart Woods (1938-2022)
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
I was on a toasty tropical vacation in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands in 2000 when I read my first book by Stuart Woods.
It was a mystery called Dead in the Water, about a New York City cop-turned-lawyer named Stone Barrington who sets out on a romantic getaway to the St. Croix-like island of St. Marks in the Caribbean. Within a couple of days of his arrival, Stone finds himself involved in the defense of an American tourist on trial for murdering her husband. She’s being prosecuted by a politically connected St. Marks native who appears to have his own agenda in mind as he makes his case.
I had come upon the battered paperback edition of Dead in the Water on a shelf in my hotel’s makeshift library—if it was dog-eared and raggedy, it must have entertained a lot of vacationers, I reasoned. I soon found it to be a nifty, fast-paced and enjoyable read. The perfect kind of 250-page quickie book to jump in and out of as I baked on the beach and jumped in and out of the water (or cooled off on the shaded terrace of my hotel room).
I later learned that the 1997 book was the third in Stuart Woods’s Stone Barrington series, a couple of dozen later editions of which I would go on to read over the ensuing years. I had a lot to choose from—between 1991 and 2021, Woods wrote 60 Stone Barrington books. And 40 assorted others.
Woods died on Friday, July 22, at his home in Washington, Conn. He was 84. The death was confirmed by his wife, Jeanmarie Woods, who did not specify a cause.
Over the course of his 40-year writing career—his first novel, the mystery Chiefs, was published by Norton & Company in 1981—the Georgia-born Woods published 70 New York Times bestsellers, most of them thrillers in his Stone Barrington series. He also created other distinct protagonists who fronted other popular series. There was Holly Barker, about a Florida police chief recruited by the C.I.A.; Rick Barron, a police detective who becomes a studio chief in 1930s Hollywood; Teddy Fay, an ex-C.I.A. operative who pursues his own brand of justice; and Will Lee, a Georgia Senator who is elected president.
Woods also wrote a batch of stand-alone novels and, early on, a couple of non-fiction works, including the 1979 travel book A Romantic’s Guide to the Country Inns of Britain and Ireland. More recently, in June, he published the memoir An Extravagant Life, where he detailed his hardworking but comfortable lifestyle as an author, sailor and pilot with homes in Florida, Maine and Connecticut.
It is Woods’s tasty, easily digestible, story-driven Stone Barrington books with their no-nonsense titles like New York Dead (1991), Two Dollar Bill (2005), Unnatural Acts (2012) and Contraband (2019) that are his most popular. Stone’s adventures generally find him knee-deep in blackmail, extortion and high-end larceny among New York City’s elite—lots of it leading to murder—resulting in him diving deep into high society and its trappings. Gallivanting about to expensive restaurants (frequently Elaine’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he enjoys the osso buco), private clubs, palatial townhouses and exclusive tropical resorts suits Stone just fine—as do his frequent dalliances with the women he meets along the way. It’s all okay with Stone as he gets to down to work—and play.
The majority of Woods’s books most likely found their way into mystery lovers’ hands just before being stuffed into a back pocket, thrown into a beach bag next to the suntan lotion or jammed into a giveaway bookshelf in the tropics. True, most of Woods’s books been issued in hardcover, but these babies are at their most functional in paperback form, best enjoyed when looking for a little escape, a little mystery, a little dash of the good life.
That’s how Stone Barrington would have done it.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.