HE HAD the face of a laughing leprechaun. Desmond Ryan, 68, the puckish journalist, incorrigible punster and irreverent novelist who worked at the

Inquirer

for 36 years in various capacities, died yesterday morning at Penn Hospice at Rittenhouse.

The cause was complications from carcinoma of the tongue, said Pat Ryan, his spouse of 44 years.

As the satirical columnist of an Inquirer Sunday magazine feature called "The Skeptic," Mr. Ryan parodied Frank Rizzo in a 1976 mock interview. It prompted the then-mayor to bring a $6 million defamation suit against the paper and send his union supporters to picket the Inquirer building, preventing the distribution of the broadsheet.

As the Inquirer's film critic from 1975 to 2001 and its theater critic from 2001 until he retired at the end of 2005, Mr. Ryan, who studied literature at New College, Oxford, could dispose of a work or sum up a filmmaker's strength in a sentence.

"The Police Academy films," he wrote of the series about the comic constabulary in the 1980s, "have become one of the wrongs of spring." In a review of Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun," he wrote: "In conjuring up the deepest emotions of childhood, Steven Spielberg is a director without peer. He knows how to reach children and touch their parents by reminding them of the way these feelings shape our adult lives."

As the author of the 1979 novel Helix, inspired by the discovery of Legionnaire's Disease at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel, and the 1982 novel Deadlines, about political corruption in South Philadelphia, he used his skills as a one-time City Hall reporter to tell stories with forensic detail.

Mr. Ryan was born in London during the Blitz, the son of pubkeepers. "A true Cockney," said his wife. From his youth he was a voracious reader and virtuoso guitarist who favored the Spanish repertory. He studied guitar with Julian Bream and attended a summer program under the instruction of Andrés Segovia.

Mr. Ryan met his future wife in London, where she was on holiday in 1966 during World Cup fever, England against Germany. "If Germany had won, we never would have gotten married," Mrs. Ryan joked yesterday. They wed in 1967. Shortly afterward, he was hired by the Philadelphia Bulletin as a City Hall reporter.

Among his first assignments when he joined the Inquirer in 1969 was to interview families who had lost sons in the Vietnam War. Often when he arrived at the soldiers' homes, the families had not yet been notified. After one time too many being the bearer of bad news, Mr. Ryan told his editors that the families were not home. He was reassigned to the City Hall bureau.

The Ryan wordsmith gene was passed along to his son, Chris, 34, soccer columnist for the website Grantland.

Besides his wife and son, he is survived by siblings Michael Ryan and Catherine Anderson, of London.

Services: Are being arranged. The family requests no flowers. Donations in Mr. Ryan's name may be made to Friends Select School, 1651 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, 19103.

Carrie Rickey was a longtime Inquirer movie critic.