Noah Gordon, an American author who was virtually unknown at home but whose novels about history, medicine and Jewish identity transformed him into a literary luminary abroad, died on Monday at his home in Dedham, Mass. He was 95.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Lorraine Gordon.
Mr. Gordon’s debut novel, “The Rabbi” (1965), which dealt with the title character’s marriage to a minister’s daughter, was lodged for 26 weeks on The New York Times’s best-seller list. But most of his subsequent eight books fared less successfully when they were published domestically, although they have proliferated since as e-books.
“When I began, my market was America: You either made it in America or didn’t make it,” he told The Times in 1996. “Well, now your market is the world.”
Michael Gordon, his son and literary agent, said in an email that Mr. Gordon’s books have sold some 25 million copies in 34 languages.
Mr. Gordon’s “The Physician” (1986) — the first book in a dynastic trilogy that began in 11th-century Persia, continued during the American Civil War with “Shaman” (1992) and ended with a modern woman doctor dealing with the morality of abortion in “Matters of Choice” (1996) — had an initial print run of only 10,000 copies in the United States.
But it eventually sold some 10 million copies, including more than six million in Germany, where, in the 1990s, six of Mr. Gordon’s novels were on best-seller lists simultaneously.
In 2013, “The Physician” was adapted into a German film, in English, starring Tom Payne, Stellan Skarsgard and Ben Kingsley. An award-winning musical based on the book is about to tour Spain.
The novel, based on meticulous research, follows the odyssey of an 11th-century Scottish protagonist, Robert Jeremy Cole, who wants to study medicine in the Middle East, where medical schools were reputed to be more advanced than those in Western Europe. Since Christians were barred from Islamic schools, Cole disguises himself as a Jew.
The book’s success, even abroad, was a fluke. Just before the publication date, Mr. Gordon’s editor at Simon & Schuster left and his agent retired. But Karl H. Blessing, who worked for Droemer Knaur, a German publisher, was captivated by the book and invested heavily in promoting it.
“While Gordon has been published in 38 countries, Spain and Germany, where he is most popular, are two countries that grapple with a history of anti-Semitism,” Andrew Silverstein wrote in The Forward this year. “While not all of Gordon’s eight books have Jewish themes, most do, and his Jewishness is well known, which may play a role in his popularity in these two countries.”
Mr. Gordon won Spain’s Silver Basque Prize twice for best-selling book, in 1992 and 1995. His novels were also popular in Italy and Brazil.
His last novel, “The Winemaker,” a story of factions dueling for the Spanish throne at the end of the 19th century, was published in 2012.
Mr. Gordon’s “Shaman” won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize from the Society of American Historians as the best historical novel of 1991 and 1992. Peter Blauner praised it in The New York Times Book Review, writing that Mr. Gordon “throws in all the twists and turns readers expect in a historical drama, but he takes the corners with a measured sense of pace and irony.” It was a best seller only in Europe, however.
Noah Gordon was born on Nov. 11, 1926, in Worcester, Mass., to Robert Gordon, a pawnbroker who had immigrated from Russia, and Rose (Melnikoff) Gordon, a sales representative.
He served in the Army during World War II, but the war ended before he was scheduled to be shipped to the Pacific. He enrolled in Boston University on the G.I. Bill, his parents hoping he would study to become a doctor. But he lasted one semester in a pre-med course before switching his major to journalism.
“Ever since childhood I had nursed two ambitions of my own,” Mr. Gordon wrote on his website. “I wanted to be a newspaperman, and I yearned to write the kind of novels that made me love books.”
He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism in 1950, then remained at the university to earn a master’s in English and creative writing the next year.
Moving to New York City, he worked as an editor for Avon Publishing and then at a picture magazine named Focus.
He married Lorraine Seay, who was a student at Clark University when they met in Boston. In addition to her, he is survived by their daughters, Lise Gordon (who worked with him on the screenplay for “The Physician”) and Mary Beth Gordon; their son, Michael; and four grandchildren. A sister and brother died before him.
After several years, the couple returned to Massachusetts, where Mr. Gordon worked for The Worcester Telegram. He was then named the science editor of The Boston Herald after writing articles, on his own initiative, about medical breakthroughs. He began working on “The Rabbi” in his spare time while editing a medical journal when his agent said a publisher had agreed to a modest advance for “The Rabbi.”
He wrote his second novel, “The Death Committee,” about three young doctors at a Boston hospital, while editing another publication, The Journal of Human Stress. (“The Death Committee” was also a Times best seller, although just briefly.) He gave up editing in 1975 and began his third novel, “The Jerusalem Diamond.”
For years he wrote from a farmhouse in Ashfield, Mass., in the Berkshires, until moving back to Boston in 1995.
“Each morning I go to my computer in anticipation of the emails I receive from readers in many countries,” Mr. Gordon wrote on his website. “I am grateful to every reader, for enabling me to spend my life as a scribbler of tales.”