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Knebel was born in Dayton, Ohio, but relocated a number of times during his youth. He graduated from high school in Yonkers, New York, spent a year studying at the University of Paris and graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio during 1934. Upon graduation, he received a job offer from the newspaper Coatesville Record of Coatesville, Pennsylvania. He spent the next 20 years working for newspapers, eventually becoming the political columnist for Cowles Publications. From 1951 to 1964, he satirized national politics and government in a nationally published column named "Potomac Fever".
During 1960, he wrote a chapter on John F. Kennedy for the book Candidates 1960. This seemed to begin a passion for writing books and he began authoring book-length works. He wrote fifteen books, most of them fiction, and all of them dealing with politics. His best-known novel is Seven Days in May (1962, co-authored with Charles W. Bailey), about an attempted military coup in the United States. The book was a great success, scoring number one on the New York Times bestseller list for almost a year, and was made into a successful movie also named Seven Days in May during 1964.
Knebel was married four times from 1935 to 1985. He committed suicide after a long bout with cancer, by taking an overdose of sleeping pills in his home in Honolulu, Hawaii, during 1993. He is the source of the quote: "Smoking is one of the leading causes of statistics."
- Seven Days in May (1962) (described above).
- Convention (1964), also written with Charles Bailey, about a woman from the Midwest USA who serves as a delegate at a major political convention.
- Night of Camp David (1965), about a President of the United States who may be insane.
- The Zin Zin Road (1966), about Peace Corps workers in Africa caught in an incipient revolution.
- Vanished! (1968), about the political effects of the sudden, mysterious disappearance of the main aide to the President of the United States during a contentious re-election campaign.
- Trespass (1969), about black militants occupying homes owned by rich caucasians and demanding that title be given to the militants as the beginning of the creation of a black nation in the American South.
- Dark Horse (1972), about a minor official chosen to replace a Presidential candidate who died shortly before the election.
- Crossing in Berlin (1981), about an American man assisting an East German woman in escaping East Germany.
- Sabotage (1986), about sabotage of oil tankers by Japanese organized crime mobsters.
Generally, Knebel's works are products of the times during which they were produced. For instance, the delegate in Convention changes her vote after learning that the candidate she had originally favored is using a computer to track personal information about the delegates. Vanished! involved concerns about superpower nuclear proliferation during the Cold War. Trespass concerns black militancy of the type that largely ended during the late 1970s. Knebel was also a staunch liberal who was "suspicious of the size and power of the American military" and intelligence community, as he wrote in Dark Horse; many of his novels represented that opinion.