William Tapply, 69, prolific writer of mysteries, nonfiction

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / July 31, 2009

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To look at William G. Tapply’s bibliography, it’s difficult to imagine the moment in the early 1980s when the manuscript for his first book landed back in his mailbox with an editor’s rejection letter that nonetheless encouraged him to keep trying.

“I realized that my novel-writing career had arrived at a turning point: I could revise the book, make it wonderful, get it published, and launch a career,’’ he wrote in an essay posted on his website, “or, I could accept the fact that I didn’t have what it takes, hide my amateurish mystery novel in a drawer, and live a sensible life.’’

He chose the former and became one of the most prolific authors in New England, publishing more than 40 books in 25 years. Two dozen mysteries featuring his Boston lawyer-turned crime solver Brady Coyne share shelf space with several volumes of his collected essays on fishing and a book about his father, a well-known outdoors writer and columnist for Field & Stream magazine.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Tapply wrote a note to readers on his website,, that mentioned his poor health amid good news about the imminent publication of no less than five more books of fiction and essays. He died Tuesday at his Hancock, N.H., home of leukemia. Mr. Tapply was 69.

“I put Bill up with Robert Parker,’’ said Kate Mattes, owner of Kate’s Mystery Books, the venerable Cambridge store that was a longtime destination for sleuth fans and will close its doors for good tomorrow.

Speaking of Parker’s famous private eye who became the title character of the “Spenser: For Hire’’ television series, Mattes said that with Brady Coyne, Mr. Tapply created “a Spenser-like character, but more polished. He was a lawyer with Brahmin clients who always wanted to keep the police out of it.’’

Beginning with 1984’s “Death at Charity’s Point,’’ Mr. Tapply’s website lists 23 Brady Coyne mysteries, and he wrote in his final message that he just turned in the 24th. Coyne also appears in three mysteries he co-wrote with Philip R. Craig.

In addition, the third in Mr. Tapply’s series of mysteries featuring Maine fishing guide Stoney Calhoun is due out in September.

Nearly as busy in nonfiction, Mr. Tapply began publishing collections of his essays on fishing in 1988. Like his father, H.G. “Tap’’ Tapply, he wrote for Field & Stream, and in 1993 he published a book about the man who loomed large as a father, writer, and critic of his son’s fledgling efforts.

“Invisible Writing,’’ an essay on Mr. Tapply’s website, recounts the lessons his father offered on how to write so that his words and sentences would call no attention to the author.

“If someone tells you, ‘Wow, that’s great writing,’ you know you’ve failed,’’ he wrote, quoting his father.

Born in Waltham, Mr. Tapply grew up in Lexington, where he excelled at basketball and baseball at Lexington High School, graduating in 1958.

“He was a fabulous athlete,’’ said his wife, the mystery writer Vicki Stiefel. “I think some of his stats still stand.’’

Mr. Tapply went to Amherst College, where he graduated in 1962 with a bachelor’s in American studies, then to Harvard, from which he received a master’s in teaching.

He taught social studies and was an administrator for a quarter century at Lexington High School, until turning to writing full time in the late 1980s. He also taught at Emerson College and at Clark University in Worcester, where he was an English professor and writer-in-residence.

“Bill was a complicated man, infinitely interesting,’’ his wife said. “In our 18 years together, we were never bored with each other. He’s a Yankee to the bone, yet he was not a confined thinker. He was a broad, deep thinker.’’

With a sharp wit and a crisp, dry demeanor, he also could be a curmudgeon, she said, adding with a laugh that “if he was a Pooh character, he would definitely be Eeyore.’’

Mattes recalled that Mr. Tapply was “very comforting to be around. He was very calm, almost serene, and I always felt very safe with him. And he gave great hugs.’’

Mr. Tapply’s first marriage ended in divorce. With Stiefel, he also ran the Writers Studio at Chickadee Farm out of their rural home in New Hampshire.

While building his reputation with the Brady Coyne series, Mr. Tapply also wrote “The Elements of Mystery Fiction,’’ a 1995 book that breaks down the process of writing and publishing books.

“I can’t say what a loss this is,’’ Mattes said. “Of all the authors I have known, I think he was the most generous with his time. He helped young writers a lot and was a wonderful teacher.’’

Part of Mr. Tapply’s teaching lay in the careful prose he published in book after book featuring Coyne, the divorced lawyer handling affairs for the well-to-do.

“He had a very nice writing style and was one of the best plotters of all the mystery authors in the New England region,’’ Mattes said. “It was rare that you could figure out who did it before Brady did. You had all the clues, but Bill played fair with the readers.’’

In an essay about how he created Coyne as his protagonist, Mr. Tapply wrote on his website that in some respects, he was simply lucky as he wrote and rewrote his first book to come up with an enduring character.

“Publishing a novel was a crazy fantasy for an anonymous middle-aged high school history teacher,’’ he noted.

And in a passage that was as much about himself as Brady Coyne, Mr. Tapply wrote:

“He has neither the cynical world view of some private eyes nor the excessive honor of others. He is, in other words, like you, gentle reader, and he’s very much like me. I’d rather have you identify with him than admire him. He’s not bigger than life. He’s just about life-sized.’’

In addition to his wife, Mr. Tapply leaves a son, Michael of Cambridge; two daughters, Melissa of San Francisco and Sarah of Waltham; two stepsons, Blake Ricciardi and Ben Ricciardi, both of Los Angeles; his mother, Muriel of Carol Stream, Ill.; and his sister, Martha Van Drunen of Oak Brook, Ill.

A service will be announced.