Brian Garfield, 1939–2019
The novelist who fantasized about a vigilante’s Death Wish
As the snow poured into his convertible, Brian Garfield longed for vengeance. The author had parked his car in Manhattan on a winter’s night and returned to find its roof had been slashed. Driving home through a blizzard, Garfield fantasized about killing the perpetrator—a bloodlust that would inspire 1972’s Death Wish. The novel, about a liberal New Yorker who goes on a killing spree after his family is attacked, was made into a 1974 movie starring Charles Bronson and lapped up by Americans fearful of rising crime. But Garfield loathed the hit film, which portrayed Bronson’s vigilante as a hero. The point of Death Wish was that vigilantism “only makes things worse,” he said. By the end of the book, the protagonist “is gunning down unarmed teenagers because he doesn’t like their looks.”
Garfield grew up in Tucson, and his artist mother was “a protégée of Georgia O’Keeffe,” said the Arizona Daily Star. He wrote his first book, the pulp Western Range Justice, at age 18, and in the late 1950s played guitar with a band called The Palisades, which had a doo-wop hit titled “I Can’t Quit.” After a stint in the Army, he focused on writing, authoring more than 70 books—ranging from 1969’s acclaimed The Thousand-Mile War, a nonfiction account of World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians, to 1975’s Hopscotch, a novel about an ex–CIA agent who exposes his bosses’ blunders.
He tried to atone for Death Wish with a 1975 sequel, Death Sentence, in which the protagonist “does not shoot to kill,” said The New York Times. Yet despite his efforts and prolific output, Garfield remained best known for Death Wish, much to his annoyance. “All one can do is keep working,” he said in 2007, “and ignore the idiots.”