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Obituary: Brian Moore

A SLIGHT, lonesome-looking Irish gentleman, invariably photographed wearing a capacious mackintosh or tweed jacket and a quizzical smile: Brian Moore's modest appearance belied an achievement as boundless as his talent. His fan club extended from Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock to Christopher Ricks, Anita Brookner and Barry Humphries.

His 20 novels appeared at regular intervals, without any apparent fuss or strain, as though on some creative production line, and were all praised with a fulsomeness that became predictable. He won many prizes, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times, and saw five of his novels filmed. His imagination ranged freely across continents and time zones, from Thirties Belfast to modern New York and from France under Napoleon III to the Jesuits of 17th-century Quebec. And the main themes of his work, the concerns that spurred him again and again to write, were the largest and most problematic of all: virtue, conscience, faith and sin.

Despite regular publication, plaudits and prizes, Moore never quite achieved fame. Partly this was the result of location: he never lived in England, where his reputation was highest, and was never part of the literary establishment there or in America. But he was an outsider by temperament. Uniquely among established writers, he would not accept cash advances for his work, saying, "They make you a kind of indentured servant to the publisher. If a book isn't working, I like to be able to throw it away." Nor would he have any truck with modern trends such as the walk-on part for the author ("I'm not the sort of writer who can afford flourishes. I don't want the reader to hear or see me") although it could be argued that he pre-dated magical realism in The Great Victorian Collection (1975), where an antique expert's dream exhibition of priceless objects is reified outside his window in Carmel, California.

He cannot quite be claimed as one of their own by English or Irish or American or Canadian literature. He wrote for no constituency except intelligent readers of strongly plotted novels underpinned by a serious moral purpose. "I like to say that I have no parish," he told Michael Shelden in 1997:

I live as I choose and I write about various times and places . . . One problem for Irish writers is that they tend to be obsessed with Ireland. Because I had emigrated, I didn't want to spend the rest of my life writing about the life I left behind.

He was born in Belfast in 1921, one of eight children, a large family of devout republican Catholics. His father was a surgeon, and the first Papist ever to be elected to the Senate of Queen's University. One of his uncles had been commander-in-chief of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an early, try-out version of the IRA. The young Brian thus had patriotism to a united Ireland, and the Catholic's fear of Hell, injected in his bloodstream from an early age. Neither quite converted him. He remained ambivalent about his beliefs: "I felt tremendous guilt when I was very young," he once said, "because I was always convinced I had made a bad First Confession."

Moore lost his faith, partly as a way of circumventing his terror of damnation, but remained fascinated by the numinous and the power of faith. He admired those who believed strongly in things, even if they were demonstrably wrong. His books are full of passionately held beliefs and equally passionate rejections of faith - in Catholics (1972), he memorably portrayed the mind of an elderly friar who tries to save a religious order from extinction even as his own faith dwindles to nothing.

He joined the war effort as a civilian (his father would have been incensed had he joined the British army), working in the British Ministry of War Transport, and later spent two years with the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, distributing supplies in Warsaw. He was present at the trial of Rudolf Hoss, the notorious commandant of Auschwitz, watched as witnesses went up to spit in Hoss's face, and never forgot the final interchange. The judge said, "You are responsible for the death of at least a million people. What have you to say for yourself?" Hoss looked at the court. "I am a German officer," he replied proudly. "I obeyed my orders."

Moore left Belfast, he said, to spare his parents the spectacle of seeing him refuse to attend Mass on Sundays. But it was the pursuit of a woman 10 years his senior that brought him across the Atlantic to Canada in 1948. The object of his affections turned him down, but he stuck around, became a journalist on the Montreal Gazette, and started to write. He married his first wife, Jacqueline Scully, a French-Canadian, in 1952.

His first books were written under the nom de plume of Michael Bryan. The first published under his real name was The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. It had been rejected by 10 American publishers when it came into the offices of the London firm of Andre Deutsch in 1954. Laurie Lee, the poet and future author of Cider With Rosie, considered it offensive because of a scene in a lavatory, but the editor Diana Athill recognised its qualities and recommended Deutsch buy it. It was published in 1955, was reviewed with instant enthusiasm and won the Author's Club prize for a first novel.

A bleak tale about a lonely alcoholic Belfast spinster, the germ of the book was a stray remark made by Mrs Keogh, one of Moore's mother's lame- duck single friends: she had been engaged just once, and used to refer to "my brother-in-law that would have been". The poignancy of the remark triggered some creative empathy in Moore that would be replicated in further novels of women suffering a loss of faith or a disastrous impulse towards carnal love (I Am Mary Dunne, 1968; The Temptation of Eileen Hughes, 1981).

Religion, sex and an Irish background constantly recurred in Moore's work. He had a virtual fetish about writing in the voice, and the skin, of a woman. He defended it lightly, saying, "If I write as a woman, I can do all the autobiographical stuff without getting picked up on it"; but the regularity with which he performed this trans-gender ventriloquism suggests a deeply serious engagement with female emotional responses. The charting of a doomed modern love affair, in The Doctor's Wife, filled with off-puttingly clinical sexual encounters, marked perhaps the low- point of these explorations, although the book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1976.

Moore moved to New York in the early Sixties. His marriage broke up and, in 1966, he moved to California with his second wife, Jean Denney, to whom many of his novels are devotedly inscribed. They settled in Malibu, and spent holidays in a fir-lined, ocean-overlooking retreat in Nova Scotia, her family's home. The condition of home and exile, especially Irish exile, informed many of his books, most notably The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960), which was filmed with Robert Shaw and Mary Ure. Two decades later The Mangan Inheritance (1979) featured a reverse journey, with an American writer searching for his Irish roots, and a foothold in literary history through kinship with the poet James Clarence Mangan.

One, perhaps surprising, influence on Moore's work was the movie director Alfred Hitchcock. Educated by Jesuits, and just as religion-haunted as Moore, Hitchcock was impressed by the "cold eroticism" of The Feast of Lupercal (1956), in which a nervous schoolteacher spends an innocent night with a young girl. He liked the way Moore got inside women's heads, and signed him up to imagine how the wives of famous modern spies might react to their defection. The result was the film Torn Curtain (1966), starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. It was generally regarded as minor-league stuff, but Moore was responsible for the intensity of the best scene, in which Newman spectacularly bungles the murder of a Communist villain in a Soviet kitchen. "You know, my father was a surgeon," Moore had informed Hitchcock, "and he always said it wasn't that easy to kill a man . . ."

In return, the master of suspense taught him about plot structure and narrative drive - lessons he only put into practice much later. After 1987, his style changed drastically. His novels became more consciously public. His prose, never exactly luxuriant, became as clipped and spare as a crew-cut. His plots raced along like thrillers, with hardly a moment for reflection, although their settings were significant battle zones.

The Colour of Blood (Booker shortlisted in 1987) begins with squealing tyres and gunshots as the Cardinal Primate of Poland goes on the run from the security police and, like an episcopal King Lear, learns the cost of political beliefs when you're not clad in robes of office. In Lies of Silence (Booker shortlisted, 1990) a Belfast hotel manager, on the verge of leaving his wife, has to drive a proxy bomb to blow up his own hotel, on pain of having his wife killed.

Perhaps it was the dormant genes of his Ulster background that led to a late series of novels on colonial themes. Apart from the Jesuit missionaries in Canada in Black Robe (1985), he wrote The Statement (1996) about a Catholic French killer protected by the church under the Vichy regime; and No Other Life (1993), about a messianic priest coming to power on a French-Caribbean island under a military dictatorship not a million miles from Haiti.

His most recent novel, The Magician's Wife (1997), sent an ambitious French prestidigitator and his nervous spouse to a serie, or court gathering, at Compiegne in 1856, whence Napoleon III sends him to Algeria to amaze the Islamic peasants with Western magic, and the reader is pitched into a choice between systems of belief, between credulity and hypocrisy.

The glitter and heft of Brian Moore's achievement, the eclecticism and range of his oeuvre, the consistency and truth of his powers of evocation, are bewildering to contemplate. He was a writer who faithfully externalised the promptings of his conscience and found settings for moral debate in the most unlikely times and places. Rootless, but obsessed by his roots, bereft of religious faith, but always drawn to the springs and impulses and betrayals of personal faith, he was a writer who combined effortless story-telling with moral questioning, and brought a vivid seriousness to the post-war novel. He is one of the few modern practitioners who will be read with pleasure in 50 years' time.

John Walsh

Brian Moore, novelist: born Belfast 25 August 1921; married 1952 Jacqueline Scully (one son; marriage dissolved), 1966 Jean Denney; died Malibu, California 11 January 1999.