Obituary: Lord Hardinge of Penshurst

George Hardinge was obsessively interested in "whodunnits" and brought a new seriousness and expertise to the publishing of a genre which many publishers found faintly declasse.

When in July each year William Collins's most successful and prolific author, Agatha Christie, used to deliver her new manuscript in order that the firm could announce a "Christie for Christmas" - with almost unfailing regularity and ever-increasing profitability - no one at the office had thought it necessary or even right to read the script before despatching it on the overnight train to Glasgow for composition on Collins's Cathedral Street monotype keyboards and casters.

Hardinge wrote excellent detailed reports on the new Christies, and indeed dozens of "Crime Club" novels by other only slightly less distinguished authors - H.R.F. Keating, Julian Symons, Francis Iles. He could spot a flaw in plotting however small and to his authors he became not merely a tough campaigner for their rights within the firm, but their guarantor of quality.

George Hardinge came of a formidably achieving family. His grandfather, the first Lord Hardinge of Penshurst, was Viceroy of India, his grandmother the wife of another statesman, Viscount Milner. His father was Private Secretary to two Kings - Edward VIII and George VI - while his mother was a leading light in Moral Re-Armament. None of this was much help to George, who was to discover skills and services he could render - to authors - of a more private sort.

Educated at Eton and the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, he served with distinction in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. During his active service he was torpedoed not once, but three times. He remained in the Navy after the war but his career path changed when two friends of his, Mark Bonham Carter and Peter Wyld, introduced him to Billy Collins - then examining and modernising Collins's general book publishing programme.

Hardinge proved a better publisher than Bonham Carter and Wyld and found his niche when the senior editor, Fred Smith, who had founded the Crime Club 25 years earlier, reluctantly ceded control of it to the gilded youth from the Navy.

Apart from the crime list he edited many other authors, mostly novelists, and brought needed new talent into the firm. One such was Richard Mason, whose second novel, The World of Suzie Wong (1957; three years later to become a famous film), had been turned down by Hodders on moral grounds - a decision later regretted. Hodders had published Mason's The Wind Cannot Read (1947), which was one of the outstanding novels of the immediate post-war period, but found the golden-hearted whore theme too louche for their standing in the lending- library market. Hardinge had to work hard to prove to the chairman that Suzie Wong was worth backing and its eventual success consolidated his successful rise as Collins's best editor of novels.

Hardinge used to say that his endurances in the war were tame compared to what went on at Collins in the 1950s. Later he wrote up some of the firm's more questionable activities in a collaborative project to recreate the world of Billy Collins in book form; a project which was never completed, but from which Collins's then publicity manager, Alan Maclean, has drawn for his own memoirs, No, I Tell a Lie, It was the Tuesday, to be published by Kyle Cathie in September.

While still at Collins he published his own contribution to the Crime Club lists, Stately Homicide (1953), under the pseudonym George Milner. This was followed in due course by other crime novels, some with a fishing background. Hardinge was a keen and expert fly fisherman but did not publish a book about this until 1976: An Incompleat Angler.

Perhaps there was something incomplete about him. He had married Jan Balfour in 1944 and they had three sons to whom they were both devoted. They lived an active social life near Robertsbridge, were friends of the Muggeridges and the Edward Crankshaws, invited office colleagues and spouses for weekends - spent not only playing bridge and "convoy" swimming, golf, but with long silent periods (common to many publishers) reading typescript submissions from agents. But the marriage ended in 1962 and Jan died tragically eight years later. Hardinge had by then remarried.

Billy Collins fought hard to keep him in the firm but he moved to Macmillan, where he continued for another 20 years to build his reputation as the trade's most effective commercial middlebrow publisher. One of his best authors was Edith Pargeter (writing as Ellis Peters), whose interfacing of modern detective theory with the medieval world produced a brilliantly atmospheric and well-plotted series. When he retired from Macmillan he assisted Tim Hely Hutchinson in setting up Headline (later to become Hodder Headline) by bringing a stable of experienced and professional authors to provide ballast at a key moment.

George Hardinge had a great gift for friendship. We had worked together in Collins in the 1950s and continued to meet mostly to discuss the iniquity of publishers from then until, barely three months ago, the last Old Collins Club lunch took place at Beoty's at which Hardinge was present - immaculate, superbly turned out, handsome, with a full head of hair, a beaky nose, a conspiratorial manner and some excellent gossip.

Robin Denniston

George Edward Charles Hardinge, publisher and author: born 31 October 1921; succeeded 1960 as third Baron Hardinge of Penshurst; senior editor, Macmillan 1968-86; married 1944 Jan Balfour (died 1970; three sons; marriage dissolved 1962), 1966 Margaret Trezise (nee Jerrum; one son, and one stepson); died Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex 14 July 1997.