Julian Rathbone: Prolific and versatile novelist

Over a 40-year writing career the novelist Julian Rathbone refused to be pigeonholed. Twice shortlisted for the Booker prize, his output included crime novels, eco-thrillers, future fiction, film scripts and quirky historical narratives, and he also edited a fine non-fiction work about the Duke of Wellington. Never a big bestseller, he nevertheless made a good living as a professional writer. He sometimes produced two books a year and among his 40-odd novels he had his greatest commercial success with The Last English King (1997), written when he was 62.

The Rathbones were a Liverpool family who had made a fortune in shipping and mercantile insurance in the 19th century, but also had a reputation for philanthropy and were consistently anti-slavery; the independent MP Eleanor Rathbone and the Hollywood actor Basil Rathbone were both relatives.

Julian Rathbone was born in 1935 in a nursing home run by his aunt Helen in Blackheath, south-east London, although his parents lived in Liverpool. They were not rich; his father, Christopher, ran a small prep school and his mother, Decima (a 10th child) was an ex-Montessori teacher. Rathbone was illegitimate, a fact he discovered in his teens. Although his parents lived together as man and wife for 30 years, they couldn't marry because his father was unable to obtain a divorce from his wife, by whom he had a daughter.

The outbreak of the Second World War put an end to the prep school and Rathbone's father joined the RAF, although he was too old for combat. After the war and a couple of what Rathbone later called "really daft" business ventures, the family moved to Bognor where Aunt Helen allowed them to live rent-free in a house she kept for distressed mothers. Rathbone's father got a job as a prep-school assistant, supplementing his income as secretary of a social club and by working illegally as a bookmaker. His mother was also, apparently, a bookie, working out of a garden shed on the local caravan site.

Rathbone was sent to his father's old prep school on the Wirral and then to public school in Dorset, where he was noted for wearing large hats and rings on his fingers. In a later memoir, he recalled an inspirational teacher at school: "He took a fancy to me, something that would have got him into all sorts of trouble these days. But he did take me on trips, to the theatre and so on, which my parents couldn't have afforded."

He also introduced Rathbone to Wellington, arousing an interest that lasted the rest of Rathbone's life. He assumed there was something Oedipal in it: "The Duke must be the ultimate father-figure".

Rathbone won writing prizes at school but at university he was more interested in being an actor. He was accepted at Magdalene College, Cambridge to read English. (He was excused National Service because he had once had TB and was deaf in one ear.) His acting ambitions stalled when he turned down a major role at Cambridge (Derek Jacobi took it). However, he was paid 30 guineas for a piece he submitted to Punch. His father had offered to match the first money his son made from writing – it nearly bankrupted him.

Graduating in 1958, Rathbone went to work as a teacher in Ankara, Turkey. He had never been abroad before, and the poverty he saw was, he said, "a revelation" and set him on a left-wing path. While he was there, his father was killed in a traffic accident at the age of 60. (Rathbone wrote about it later in Blame Hitler). In 1962 he returned to the UK and, after a spell as a teacher in London comprehensives (an experience that took him "further left"), he took a job as head of English in a Bognor comprehensive, to be nearer his mother.

Rathbone was an admirer of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene. There were elements of both in his first novel, Diamonds Bid (1967). It was the first of four thrillers based in Turkey. By 1972 he was thinking of giving up teaching to write full time. In that year, at 38, he met a former pupil, Alayne (Laney), age 20, at a school reunion. He chucked in his job, she chucked in university and they ran off to Spain in a camper van.

They settled in Salamanca where Rathbone got stuck on his fifth Turkish novel. Eventually, he binned 200 pages. "From then on I've been over-meticulous about plotting everything before I get down to writing," he later said. Instead, he started Bloody Marvellous (1975).

The couple returned to England in 1974 and Alayne resumed her studies at Southampton University. Rathbone had a look at recent Booker prize-winners and wrote King Fisher Lives (1976) with the prize in mind: the novel contains cannibalism, incest and oral sex. It was shortlisted, but didn't win – Rathbone believed because Harold Wilson's wife, the amateur poet Mary Wilson, was chief of the judges and thought the book "filthy". "Harold, who made a brief appearance at the Booker dinner, gave me a very dirty look."

The Rathbones spent 1975 and 1976 in France and Spain where Rathbone wrote Carnival (1976), and A Raving Monarchist (1977). Around this time Rathbone came under the influence of Georg Lukacs' The Historical Novel and Herbert Marcuse's One Dimensional Man. The result was The Euro-killers (1979), set in a fictionalised Holland where an honest, deeply conservative policeman tries to bring polluting industrialists to book. Rathbone had his hero dumped in a tub of quick-drying concrete at the end of the novel. However, a publisher wanted two more books featuring the same man so the concrete dried rather more slowly and Base Case (1981) and Watching the Detectives (1983) followed.

In 1979 Rathbone was again Booker shortlisted for Joseph, a picaresque pastiche set in the Peninsular War. He then wrote A Last Resort, his first overtly autobiographical novel. In 1982, at the request of a publisher, Rathbone returned to the thriller format with A Spy of the Old School, a sympathetic look at an Anthony Blunt-type British spy.

His next novel, Nasty, very (1984) was his comment on Thatcher's Britain. He sent his next book, Lying in State (1985), to Graham Greene "as a way of acknowledging that what was good in what I had written was good because, in part, of what I had got from him, and I wanted to thank him". Greene wrote back saying, among other things: "I think your book a good one!" Rathbone framed the letter.

In 1986 Zdt, another eco-thriller, won the Deutsche Krimi Preis. For the rest of the decade Rathbone's book a year continued to achieve respectable though not outstanding sales. In the early 1990s, however, he hit a trough.

The family had moved to Spain for a year. When they returned to Britain, Rathbone was let go by his publisher. He quickly found another but his next few novels did not sell well.

However, after seeing the 1995 film Braveheart, he came up with the idea for a novel about King Harold from the point of view of one of his men wandering across Asia Minor after the defeat at Hastings. The Last King of England was a commercial and critical success and was optioned for a film to which Michael Caine, Jean Reno and Jude Law (as Harold) were all attached. The film wasn't made, but Rathbone wrote the first version of a script for another Caine movie, Shiner (2000).

The upturn in Rathbone's fortunes continued, and he remained prolific to the end, publishing two more historical novels and two in a private-eye series. His last novel, The Mutiny, about the Indian uprising of 1857, came out last year. Rathbone was a humorous, engaging man who admitted to vanity. In a memoir in 2003 he wrote: "The two things a writer, no matter how good or bad s/he is, needs for success are luck and vanity. Talent? Well, look around, not many as talented as me. Forget talent. I've been as lucky as I want or need to be . . . "

Peter Guttridge

Julian Rathbone, novelist: born London 10 February 1935; married 1973 Alayne Pullen (one son, one daughter); died Thorney Hill, Hampshire 28 February 2008.