Philip R. Craig, the salty Edgartown author who earned national and local celebrity status for his popular Vineyard mystery series, died on May 8 at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital after a brief illness. He was 74 and had lived year-round in a renovated Ocean Heights camp with his wife Shirley.
At the time of his death Mr. Craig had published 20 books, including the well-known mystery series whose likable protagonist J.W. Jackson lives the idyllic Vineyard life - fishing at Wasque, clamming at Cape Pogue, married to a beautiful woman and solving twisted murders along the way.
And while they never achieved literary acclaim, Philip Craig's books had no need of it, because their appeal lay in their readability, their power of escape and their keen sense of place. The author not only created characters that were agreeable and plots with just enough twist to pique the reader - he always got the Vineyard right.
"How well he knew the Island and his sense of place - if his character was driving up Music street, you knew exactly where he was," said Ann Bassett, events coordinator at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, this week.
With a new one out each year around the middle of June, the Philip Craig books made a popular Father's Day present (although ironically most of them were read by women) - equally good for the beach or a rainy day.
The 18th book in the J.W. Jackson series, published by Scribner and titled Vineyard Stalker, is due out next month. Another book which he coauthored with mystery writer William G. Tapply - the third such joint venture, titled Third Strike - is due out in the fall.
Mr. Tapply this week wrote an appreciation for his friend and colleague that is published on the Commentary Page in today's Gazette.
Mr. Craig's commercial success, which came in mid-life, always surprised him a little. "Writers write. They write anyway. You don't quit because nobody buys them. You just do it anyway because it's your nature. You have stories to tell. So that's how I knew I was a writer, but I had no expectation of having any life such as this," he wrote in a personal reflection published in the Martha's Vineyard Magazine in 2003.
Born on Dec. 10, 1933, in Santa Monica, Calif., Phil grew up on a small cattle ranch near Durango, Colo., one of five children. The children would play so hard their shirts would become untucked and fly out in the wind behind them as they ran, so the ranch was called the Flying Shirttail. The family lived with no electricity or running water until Phil was 10.
As a child, Phil rode horseback or walked two miles to the one-room Long Lane School, where he received his primary education. At recess the boys would amuse themselves by throwing hunting knives at a wall of the stable where their horses were kept.
The school library was a closet with some books in it that dated to the early 1900s, including the Tarzan novels written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Over the next few years Phil read 24 of them, establishing himself as the reigning Tarzan expert of southwest Colorado. About this time he began writing poetry and fiction. Later, in Durango High School, he was influenced by an English teacher who encouraged him to write more poetry and prose.
Bad knees and flat feet kept him from serving in the Korean War. In 1951, he enrolled at Boston University with the intention of becoming a minister. At college he was an avid fencer and made All-American in 1955. He graduated in 1957 with a degree in religion and philosophy. He claimed to be a terrible student and said he had really majored in fencing and minored in bridge and the university only graduated him because they wanted to be rid of him. He was later invited to join the U.S. Olympic fencing squad, but a knee injury and lack of money prevented him from accepting. By the time he graduated from university, his academic interests had shifted to literature and writing.
But fencing would shape his future life. One day, while filling in as an instructor at a college salle, he met Shirley Jane Prada of Edgartown. In December of 1957 they were married.
In 1962, he obtained a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the prestigious University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, where Vance Bourjaily was his advisor. During summers on the Vineyard in the 1960s, he covered Island news as a stringer for the New Bedford Standard Times and its Vineyard bureau chief Harvey Ewing.
From 1962 until 1965 he taught English and journalism at Endicott Junior College in Beverly. In the spring of 1965 he read a freshman theme aloud in class to illustrate some point. The theme included either the word damn or hell - he forgot which - and he was summarily fired by the dean, whose words he later recalled: "You're too creative for us, Mr. Craig."
In the fall of 1965 he joined the faculty at Wheelock College in Boston, where he continued to teach English. On a sabbatical in 1973 and 1974, he took his family to Europe for the year, living in Spain and England and traveling to Morocco in northern Africa. While at Wheelock, Phil often took students to England for a hands-on course in English literature. He became well known among the locals in the town of Bath, and was once invited to play on the local pub's cricket team. Upon his return from England one year, Phil introduced Bath's favorite pub game, shove ha'penny, to his family and friends, having his own game board made by a Vineyard headstone carver. Spirited family competitions ensued, always accompanied by a pint of ale.
Phil remained at Wheelock until the spring of 1999, when he retired as professor emeritus of English and became a full-time writer.
He wrote his first novel, Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn, during noon lunch breaks in the back room of Al's Package Store in Edgartown, which was owned by his father in law Al Prada and where he worked summers. The fiction work was published in 1969, when he was 35. Over the next 20 years he wrote numerous novels that were never published. Then in 1989, when he was 55, A Beautiful Place to Die, the first in the Vineyard mystery series, was published.
With the series Phil Craig found his niche - and commercial success.
Ann Bassett said his sense of place was just one reason: "Number two was the fishing - the fishing was key. When J.W. was fishing at Wasque the joy would leap off the page," she said, adding: "And third - J.W. Jackson is a man who thoroughly loves his wife. In an age of shoot-em-up and bang-em-up cynicism, to find a character that absolutely loves his wife is a wonderful thing."
She concluded: "We'll miss him and we'll miss all those books. I can say sincerely that the Bunch of Grapes family is in mourning."
Cynthia Riggs, a West Tisbury mystery writer who often joined Mr. Craig for book signings, agreed. "Phil was the most generous person I can imagine," she said, recalling: "When my first book was published we were at a signing together and I was trying to spread my book out so it looked like a lot. He had published 12 or 13 books at the time, and he would say to people in this long line - ‘If you like my books, you should try Cynthia's too.'
"I am going to miss him terribly."
But he was not just a writer. An avid fisherman, sailor, gardener and family man, he loved to cook and entertain - all traits that informed his books, which became as popular for their scallop and bluefish recipes as for their storytelling. The exclamation delish! has become a Phil Craig trademark, and last year it was included in the title for a cookbook he coauthored with his wife.
He was a man of strong opinions, especially on the subject of environmentalists, for whom he had little love, although he was certainly no advocate for development either. During the early 1990s when protection for the piping plovers caused beach closures and made front page news, Phil Craig wrote a number of strongly worded opinion pieces that were published in the Gazette.
In one take-no-prisoners dispatch, he concluded: "Remember when some people on the Vineyard were thinking about seceding from the country, declaring war on the U.S.A., losing and then living off war reparations? Maybe it's worth another thought. This time, though, we should refuse to sign the peace treaty until we get a clause written in that bans environmentalists and the Bomb."
He served on the board of directors for the New England Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America and led panels at international conferences of mystery writers all over the country and in England. He taught workshops on mystery writing and was a guest lecturer at numerous colleges and universities.
In the fall of 2004 he accepted an invitation to house his papers and other archival materials in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.
He served on the board of the Martha's Vineyard Chamber Music Society and was vice president of the Martha's Vineyard Chapter of the Scottish Society. He was a member of the Martha's Vineyard Surfcasters, the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society, The Trustees of Reservations and the Rod & Gun Club. He and his son Jamie also belonged to the Speckled Band of Boston, a Sherlock Holmes society. When he could afford it, he and Shirley would travel, particularly to sites of ancient civilizations. Together they visited 49 states and 43 countries.
He sang in the Island Community Chorus, played the guitar and doted on his grandchildren, teaching them to write and to fence.
A final, as yet untitled, book in the J.W. Jackson series will appear around June of 2008.
He is survived by his wife of 49 years, his children, Kim Lynch of Durango, Colo., and Jamie Craig of Edgartown; grandchildren Jessica and Peter Harmon and Bailey Lynch of Durango, and Riley and Amelia Craig of Edgartown; brothers Kenneth and Howard Craig and sister Martha Walker of Durango, as well as many nieces, nephews and cousins. He was predeceased by his younger brother Roger Craig.
A remembrance will be held in August at a date to be announced, and his ashes will be spread in the waters off the Vineyard. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Island Community Chorus, P.O. Box 4157, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.