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Sunday 3 April 2011

H.R.F. Keating

The esteemed crimewriter and creator of Inspector Ghote will 'live on in the memory', writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

I have a treasured letter from 1996 written by Harry Keating, who died last Sunday at 84, with his trusty fountain pen -- telling me I had been elected to the Detection Club, assuring me the "obligations of membership" were slight and asking if I felt I could accept.

It was a moment of sheer joy. I had written seven crime novels by then, but it had never occurred to me that I might be chosen to join the small, mysterious writers' dining club whose founders included GK Chesterton, creator of Father Brown; Dorothy Sayers, who begat Lord Peter Wimsey; and Agatha Christie, without whom there would be no Miss Marple and no Hercule Poirot.

They had bequeathed an initiation ceremony of magnificent silliness, which involved a candle-lit procession and a requirement for new members to swear -- on a skull known as Eric -- an oath to eschew in their plots such abominations as 'Jiggery Pokery, Coincidence or Act of God'. (The ritual used to be a closely guarded secret, but is sadly now available on the internet). Annually, clad in the presidential red robe of office, Harry presided over this amiable nonsense with utter gravity -- his striking presence enhanced by his Old Testament beard. Diffident, sweet-natured and kindly, Henry Reymond Fitzwalter Keating, who was born of Catholic Anglo-Irish stock in Sussex on October 31, 1926, wrote his first story -- Jim's Adventure -- when he was eight. His father, who was rather tight-fisted, encouraged his bookish son to leave Merchant Taylors' School at 16.

Many of Harry's otherworldly friends were surprised to learn that his early career was briefly as a BBC engineer (adjudged "too clumsy"), leading to national service with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, which earned him an ex-serviceman's grant that took him to Trinity College. Over club dinners, Harry would sometimes reminisce to me -- the only Irish member -- about his "dizzy" four years in Dublin, which he remembered with great fondness and from which he emerged with a first in modern languages to begin work as a provincial journalist and then a London-based sub-editor.

"As a young man I had a vague ambition to be a writer," he said later, "but when I left college I decided in a rather whimsical Irish fashion that I'd be a gentle failure. Sheila Mitchell, the strong-minded, forceful actress he married in 1953, would have none of it.

"He had wanted to be a writer but then he thought: 'No, there's no way. I don't have anything to say.' I told him it was absurd. And then, Harry claims -- though I don't remember it -- that I said: 'Well, why don't you write a detective novel? You like them and they don't say anything'."

In fact his novels would say things, particularly about moral choices, though not in a shouty way.

"The crime story," he wrote once, "can to a small extent or to quite a large extent, do what the pure novel does.

"It can make a temporary map for its readers out of the chaos of their surroundings -- only it should never let them know."

The first book, Death and the Visiting Firemen (1959), was sufficiently successful for Harry to adopt the precarious career of full-time freelance writer; although the Keating family, with its four children, was poor in the early years. The breakthrough came in 1964 with The Perfect Murder, his first book about Bombay's Inspector Ganesh Ghote, which won the Crime Writers' Association (CWA) Gold Dagger for Fiction.

"There's a lot of Inspector Ghote in me," said Harry. "He's modest and he tends to be put upon and he longs to be nice or good. Another boast -- he has, deep down, the spine of steel which enables him to get to the end of a case, and me to get to the end of a book."

Harry, who liked a humdrum life (in Who's Who his recreation is "popping round to the post") in the bosom of his beloved wife and children, continued writing about Inspector Ghote without ever going anywhere near India, until after 10 years Air India offered him a free ticket that he felt obliged to accept.

"One small step for Inspector Ghote," was what he intended to say as he left the plane: "God, it's hot," is what came out instead.

He had deliberately discouraged his wife -- a woman of strong opinions -- from travelling with him.

When she did, "she didn't like it at all: the beggars, the smells, the crowds. I had wanted to like it, so I did". When Ghote became unfashionable in the Nineties, the obliging Harry produced a seven-book series about a female detective, Harriet Martens -- but there was much more to his life of crime than fiction.

He wrote several thoughtful and authoritative books about the genre and its stars: Crime and Mystery: the 100 Best Books covers writers from Edgar Allan Poe to PD James.

As a revered Times critic, he was generous about new talent, and he was admired and loved by his peers.

He won the CWA's Gold Dagger twice, and in 1996 received its ultimate accolade, the Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement.

He served his profession well both as chairman of the CWA and president of the Detection Club, and he went further afield as chairman of the Society of Authors and a Fellow and Council Member of the Royal Society of Literature. He would have been a natural candidate for an honour, but would probably have refused, for Harry was left-wing in an old-fashioned and principled way.

His death notice said he would "live on in the memory" of his widow, four children, their spouses and nine grandchildren, "and through Inspector Ghote".

It was a gentle, whimsical touch that makes Harry's friends smile in recognition.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards