Michael David Anthony

Writer of cathedral-close crime novels

Tuesday 20 May 2003 00:00 BST

Michael David Anthony, writer and lecturer: born Malmesbury, Wiltshire 17 January 1942; died London 15 May 2003.

Michael David Anthony was a respected exponent of a sub-genre of the detective story, the ecclesiastical (or clerical) mystery. His three novels set in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral featured the head of the diocesan Dilapidations Board, a retired intelligence officer, Colonel Richard Harrison, who reluctantly found himself mixed up in a series of mysteries, involving some clues from the past.

The murder, if there was one, was only part of the plot and the first book, The Becket Factor (1990), was not even conceived as a crime thriller, so that Anthony was at first disconcerted when his agent told him that he had an offer from Collins for the Crime Club imprint. However, he quickly adjusted to the idea and went on to become an enthusiastic member of the Crime Writers' Association.

The Becket Factor was a tale of Cold War espionage and local history involving a mysterious death and the discovery of a coffin that might possibly have been the resting-place of St Thomas à Becket. The underlying themes had to do with the conflict between conservatives and modernisers in the Anglican Church, with Harrison trying to steer a moderate course between the two. The pleasure was in the plot and the characters, particularly in Harrison's angst and misapprehensions as he tries to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Harrison reappeared in Dark Provenance (1994), this time investigating an actual murder connected with the war, when a piece of Dresden china was the main clue to the killer; and in Midnight Come (1998), built around a performance of Marlowe's Dr Faustus and probably the best of the trilogy. There was something of Michael Anthony himself in the character of the colonel, moderate, self-deprecating, averse to emotionalism and fuss.

To some extent the novels, though they were set at the time when they were written, were their author's means of exploring his own early background. He was born in 1942, the son of a rural dean in the West Country, and spent his childhood in rural vicarages. From the age of eight, he attended Wells Cathedral School, against which he increasingly rebelled. After school, instead of going to university, he drifted through a variety of jobs: reporter on a local newspaper, door-to-door salesman, long-distance lorry driver.

He learned to fly and was a keen yachtsman. He travelled around Britain and Europe, and began to study for the Bar. In the late Sixties, he taught at a school in Birmingham, while living in a communal house which later provided the material for several anecdotes. Eventually, during a year with a Finnish girlfriend, he took a course at the University of Helsinki, then finally did his degree at the University of East Anglia, as a mature student.

After graduating, he spent a year as an English teacher in Libya and began writing documentary scripts for the BBC. On his return, he returned to teaching and, in 1978, joined the staff of Woolwich College of Further Education, where he was to spend the rest of his teaching career.

With his beard, his pipe, his tweed jacket and his slightly absent-minded manner, Michael Anthony looked more like a university don than an FE lecturer; but his evident enthusiasm for his subject, his love of the English language and its literature, and his conscientious approach made him a very effective teacher, remembered with affection by successive generations of students. He never showed a wish for promotion or administrative responsibilities, devoting his spare time and his aspirations to writing. It was here, in the Canterbury novels, that he returned to the cathedral closes and Anglican vicarages of his childhood, an environment that he saw under threat from the modern world and towards which he looked back with a little nostalgia, but also with a measure of irony.

An anarchist in his youth, he had come in time to adopt an increasingly old-fogeyish manner, but there was always a hint of self-mockery, underlined by an unforgettable, roaring laugh. He willingly admitted that he hated change: the new prayer book, Shakespeare in modern dress, the European currency - all were dismissed as "ghastly". He was a man of great charm, with a wide circle of friends of all ages, who loved the company of young people, especially his sisters' children and those of his friends.

After a heart attack three years ago, he gave up writing for a time. It had never come easily to him: he was a perfectionist, who had a compulsion to write and, at the same time, a lot of self-doubt, which meant that he agonised over revisions and plots. However, he had recently resumed work on another novel, something of a departure for him, since it was set on an RAF base during the Second World War. And, to please his publisher, he was planning a fourth Harrison mystery.

Robin Buss

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