HRF Keating: Prolific and award-winning crime writer best known for his Inspector Ghote novels
Friday 01 April 2011
In his 50 years in the world of crime fiction, the multi-award winning author Harry Keating rubbed shoulders with the greats of every generation, from Agatha Christie on. During his long career he published over 50 crime novels and numerous short stories and edited and wrote various non-fiction works. He was also an astute critic of the genre, especially during his 15 years as crime fiction critic for The Times.
His take on the genre was bothsimple and sophisticated: "The crime story can ... 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".
He was born in St Leonard's-on-Sea, East Sussex, in 1926 as HenryReymond Fitzwalter Keating (andwas always published as HRFKeating, except when he wrote as Evelyn Harvey). The family was Anglo-Irish. His father ran a prep school but wanted to be a writer. He passed on his passion for writing early – Keating's first recorded short story was Jim's Adventure, laboriously written on his father's manual typewriter at the age of eight.
His father sent him to Merchant Taylors' school in Middlesex. He left at 16, in 1942, at the height of the Second World War. He took a job as an engineer at the BBC, and in 1945, when the war ended, was called up for service in the army. He served two and half years and then, thanks to the provision of grants for ex-servicemen, studied Modern Languages at Trinity College, Dublin, where he was a contemporary of the iconoclastic Irish-American writer, JP Donleavy. He threw himself into the literary and intellectual life of the university. He got a First.
He chose journalism as his career and began work with the regional newspaper group, the Westminster Press. In 1953 he married the actress, Sheila Mitchell (they eventually had three sons and a daughter.)
In 1956, he went to the Daily Telegraph as a sub-editor; he always said he got the post because the then-editor conducted his job interview in French, regarding himself as a French speaker and seeing that Keating had studied French at Trinity.
When Keating got the Telegraph job he and his wife moved into Notting Hill – at the time the multicultural milieu of the novels of Colin McInnes and the real-life exploits of Peter Rachman. They stayed there for over 50 years.
He moved from the Telegraph to the Times as a "sub" but all the while, in his spare time, encouraged by his wife, he was writing novels. They weren't conventional, as their titles indicated. His first, Death and the Visiting Firemen, was published in 1959. Zen There Was Murder followed in 1960, then A Rush On The Ultimate (1961) and The Dog It Was That Died (1962). Julian Symons, that other doyen of crime fiction, once wrote: "Early [Keating] books... gave readers the pleasure of seeing a writer kick up his heels in defiance of any critical perception of what a crime story ought to be like."
Kicking up his heels had a price – none of Keating's first novels werepublished in the lucrative US market. He, therefore, sat down deliberately to write something that was nottoo "British". He was helped by anatlas. Famously, flicking through one he stopped on a page showing a map of India.
What followed was a novel featuring Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay police force – a timid, respectful (verging on the obsequious) but also tenacious character, who had a warm curiosity about the people around him. His strength was that everyone underestimated him.
Keating later wrote: "I had it in mind to write a crime story that would be a commentary upon the problem of perfectionism, and one of the few notions I had about India was that things there were apt to be rather imperfect. Good symbolic stuff. Then, out of nowhere, into my head there came this man, or some parts of him..."
The Perfect Murder was published in 1964. It won the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger in the UK. More significantly, Keating achieved his aims in the US. There, it won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America and the acclaim of Anthony Boucher, at the time the most influential crime fiction critic in America. It would be a decade before Keating actually visited India.
Keating had seen the novel as a one-off, but he went on in the following years to write over a score of Ghote novels, plus short stories. His next Gold Dagger, however, came in 1980 for a non-Ghote novel – although still set in India – The Murder of the Maharajah.
There were successful radio versions of Ghote and in 1988 his first Ghote novel was made into a not-very-good film. In the '90s, when Bombay officially became Mumbai, Ghote became an increasingly outmoded figure in the new India. Keating ended Ghote's career in Breaking and Entering in 2000. A year earlier he'd had fun writing a crime novel in rhyme – Jack the Ladykiller (1999).
In 2000 he introduced DS Harriet Martens in The Hard Detective. Keating's wife, Sheila Mitchell, read the audio versions of that and the subsequent Martens series.
In his long career Keating was weighted with honours and duties. In 1996 he was awarded the CWA's Diamond Dagger for making a major contribution to crime fiction. He had briefly been chairman of the CWA years earlier (1970-71), and chairman of the Society of Authors (1983-84). He was president of the Detection Club from 1985 to 2000. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1990, while in 2006, to honour his 80th birthday, the Detection Club produced an anthology from other leading crime writers.
In 2008 he returned to Inspector Ghote and again in the following year. Inspector Ghote's First Case (2008) and A Small Case for Inspector Ghote? (2009) were both set in the early 1960s to fit in with rest of the pre-Mumbai series.
Through his long career he also wrote and edited non-fiction. In 1987 Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books (1987) was prefaced by Patricia Highsmith, who was an unlikely but close friend; the two writers had been introduced by her editor, who also happened to be his neighbour.
His 1986 Writing Crime Fiction remains essential reading, and Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime remains an interesting collection of essays. As late as 2004 he paid tribute to Christie, "whose sure hand with her narratives taught me more than perhaps I even now recognise." Other non-fiction included Sherlock Holmes: The Man and His World.
His novels were often quirky. Julian Symons said: "The tone and manner of Keating's crime stories ... spring from a mind attracted by philosophical and metaphysical speculation, with a liking for fantasy held in check by the crime story's requirement of plot."
Keating himself said: "What starts me off writing a crime novel is, almost paradoxically, a philosophical idea. Flying a bit high? Well, like it or not, it is ideas of this sort... that give my imaginative faculty the necessary fire."
In an entry for Who's Who he wrote that his recreation was "popping round to the post". It's hard to see how he found the time.
Henry Reymond Fitzwalter Keating, writer and critic: born St Leonard's-on-Sea, East Sussex 31 October 1926;married 1953 Sheila Mitchell (threesons, one daughter); died London 27 March 2011.
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