Forgotten authors No.33: HRF Keating

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The Independent Culture

Still working (his A Small Case for Inspector Ghote is published in hardback by Allison & Busby next week), the ebullient Mr Keating has written around 60 novels, but he's now hard to spot on bookshelves

Henry Reymond Fitzwalter Keating was born in 1926 near Hastings. A lifelong mystery novel lover, he was the crime books reviewer for The Times for 15 years, and is the author of 24 Inspector Ghote mysteries, which are set in the old offices of the Mumbai CID. Keating did not visit India until a full decade and nine Mumbai novels had passed – proof that you don't always need to write from direct experience. He actually felt that the books were harder to write after his visit. His other recurring characters were tough DCI Harriet Martens, and charlady Mrs Craggs.

In the same way that you can watch a 1960s film and be less fascinated by the plot than the art direction, so Keating's early whodunits work well as social documents – although that's not to dismiss their plots, which often feature good twists.

In his police procedural Is Skin Deep, Is Fatal from 1965, a police superintendent investigates the gassing of a nightclub tart, and although the narrative features a plot clue that virtually pokes you in the eye with a stick, it's a terrific snapshot of the flyblown Soho nightlife that was still untouched by any sign of swinging London. This is a world where secretaries know more than wives, everyone makes smutty remarks and hints at sex, but no one manages to live out their fantasies. When faced with a gaggle of beauty queens at a murder site, Keating's cop "brought order like a sedulous botanist in a wild garden". As with so many senior authors, Keating's language is rich and succinct. With virtually no technology to call upon, his officers of the law carried out their work the old-fashioned way, by getting to know the neighbourhood and keeping tabs on potential troublemakers. Keating has a natural ear for dialogue, and plenty of banter moves the action forward at a decent pace.

Keating also produced the definitive biography of Agatha Christie and several other volumes that add to our knowledge of crime fiction and its characters, including a crime-lovers' bible entitled Whodunit. He won the crime writers' holy grail of awards, the Gold Dagger, for his book The Perfect Murder, and quite rightly too.