Outspoken, irreverent but always warm-hearted and affable, Mal Peet, who has died aged 67, was an outstanding Young Adult novelist. Serious and committed but also uproariously funny, he was loved and respected throughout the publishing world. Producing his first novel at the age of 52, he went on to win a fine reputation that was still growing at the time of his cruelly premature death.
Born in North Walsham, Norfolk, Peet grew up in a council house, the oldest of three children. His father was a former regimental sergeant major who had enjoyed a good war but, said Peet, "found the rest of his life disappointing". His mother worked in local shops. Describing his childhood as "emotionally famished", Peet wrote later that, "The three things that kept me sane were my bike, books and football.
Winning a scholarship to the prestigious blue-blazered Paston School, he never took to this all-male academy and the way it offered "cross-country twice a week and caning on Friday." It later appears thinly disguised as Newgate School in his novel Life; an Exploded Diagram, where it is described as so ultra-patriotic that it played the national anthem on any pretext, including the Duke of Kent's birthday and the anniversary of the Battle of the Nile.
Going on to the University of Warwick to read English, Peet left after a year but graduated later, finishing with a Master's degree. By now married, he taught at a college in Exeter until, suffering from what he described as "my old enemy, boredom", he decided to try to make a living writing and drawing cartoons. When this failed, he spent years drifting between plumbing, selling medical equipment, picking grapes and laying tarmac.
His wife "quite sensibly" divorced him and his outlook continued to look bleak until, aged 39, he married again, this time to the writer, Elspeth Graham. Living in Exmouth, they set about producing over a hundred short educational books for children and teachers, ranging from reading primers to picture-books, guides to the classics and poetry collections.
Spurred on by Elspeth and his current editor, he finally wrote Keeper (2002). This was the first of three novels set in an imaginary South American country with a sports journalist, Paul Faustino, as its main character. Describing the sleazy financial world operating behind professional football in the developing world and the way that young players can so easily get caught up in criminality, this was a football-themed novel like no other. It won the Branford Boase Award and a Nestle Children's Book Award.
The Penalty (2006) takes the story further, with no let up in tension or unflinching realism, and Exposure (2009) completed the trilogy with a brilliant retelling of Othello. The Moor of Venice re-emerges as a leading black player enjoying pop-star fame. He and his glamorous wife Dezi are finally brought down by his Machiavellian agent, Diego. This novel won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize.
Before that, Tamar (2005) starts with a modern 15-year-old girl whose grandfather has just committed suicide. She slowly pieces his tragic story together from a box of clues left behind relating to his wartime experience in the Netherlands. Visiting the country for local colour, Peet struggled with this complex story for two years. Gratifyingly, for what he described as "a gloomy, bloody thing", it won the Carnegie Medal. Peet joked this was really for the "Most Promising Elderly Late-Starter". But in fact he was now accepted as a leading writer, widely translated.
Life: an Exploded Diagram (2011), returns to the Norfolk of his childhood. Here, first teenage love is played out against the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962. Quoting from official documents, it includes all the main historical players, with the Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev coming over "as hard as a drill-bit and as cunning as a lavatory rat." Well reviewed, it made less impression than it should. By now Peet had become vocal about the decline in income seen by him and other authors as royalties dwindled and libraries started to disappear.
The Murdstone Trilogy (2014) that followed, written primarily for an adult audience, was a wonderfully mischievous attack on the modern publishing world and its obsession with "sword and sorcery" novels. It features Philip Murdstone, a despairing novelist previously specialising in "sensitive stories about problem children that no one wanted to read", another of Peet's pet hates. Ordered by his beautiful but rapacious female agent to write some fantasy fiction instead, Murdstone somehow conjures up a thoroughly nasty dwarfish figure from the past who will write this story for him but only for malign reasons of his own. There is no happy ending, but a great deal of pointed fun along the way.
Also returning to writing illustrated books for younger readers with his wife, Peet learned last Christmas Eve that he had terminal cancer. Survived by Elspeth, their three children and two grandchildren, he died with two more novels still to be published which he continued working on almost to the end. Both will be much looked forward to but they will be no substitute for the man himself, missed not just by his family but by all readers who would have known immediately after encountering any one of his books that here was a truly brilliant and original author.
Mal Peet, author: born North Walsham, Norfolk 20 June 1947; married firstly (marriage dissolved), secondly Elspeth Graham (three children); died 2 March 2015.