Instead of the usual review, this week features the obituary of the wonderful writer HRF Keating, who died on Monday, March 28th. His second protagonist, Detective Harriet Martens (The Hard Detective and six others) is a personal favorite of mine, a woman who has pulled herself up through the rank’s of a man’s world.
But there’s no question Inspector Ganesh Ghote is for whom Keating will be most fondly remembered. The Indian detective brought more empathy and pathos to a story than any hard-boiled detective ever had. It is with fond memories and deep regret that I share this wonderful article by Mike Ripley, of the UK Guardian, and hope that readers unfamiliar with Keating’s work will be inspired by the man to pick up one of his wonderful novels.
HRF Keating published more than 50 novels over half a century. Photograph: Nicola Kurtz/National Portrait Gallery London
The crime writer Henry Reymond Fitzwalter Keating, who has died aged 84, was more than happy to be known simply as Harry, although publishers always billed him as HRF Keating. Over half a century, he published roughly 50 novels. More than two dozen of these featured his best-known hero, the unassuming Indian policeman Inspector Ganesh Ghote, who also appeared in short stories, and television and film adaptations of Keating’s books. Timid, nervous and deferential, Ghote was neither a detective genius like Sherlock Holmes nor a streetwise tough-guy like Philip Marlowe. He was always underestimated by his enemies but his great strength was a combination of integrity, perseverance and an overwhelmingly benevolent interest in people.
Keating wrote several books before creating Ghote. His first novel, Death and the Visiting Firemen, was published in 1959. It was followed by more witty and slightly surreal novels, with intriguing titles such as Zen There Was Murder (1960) and The Dog It Was That Died (1962). However, Keating’s highly contrived plots and acute sense of whimsy failed to find favour in the US. In a deliberate move to break into the American market, he decided he needed a solid detective hero and an interesting location. As he described the process: “I sat down with the atlas and when I got to ‘page India’ I thought that looked interesting.”
The result was the first Ghote novel, The Perfect Murder (1964), which won the gold dagger for fiction, awarded by the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA). It was an outstanding success in America, being declared book of the year (as early as April) by the influential critic Anthony Boucher. Keating never saw Ghote as a long-term prospect, think- ing that there were potentially two or three more books in the series. But readers began to demand a book a year, and Keating wisely stayed loyal to his most unlikely detective and became, or so it was assumed, an expert on all things Indian.
His gentle manner and a particularly luxuriant beard gave Keating something of the aura of a guru. In fact, he had never been anywhere near India. Things, as he said “were going quite nicely without having to face the actuality” when, one morning in the 1970s, the postman delivered a letter from Air India offering a flight to Bombay (now Mumbai) so that he might see the country he had been describing in convincing detail for the best part of a decade.
Although reassured that his Inspector Ghote books had many fans in India, it was with some trepidation that Keating steeled himself for his arrival with a much-rehearsed speech starting: “One small step for Inspector Ghote …” Instead, he stepped out of the aircraft with the immortal words: “God, it’s hot.”
In 1988, The Perfect Murder was adapted for a film, directed by Zafar Hai and produced by Ismail Merchant, with a cameo role for the author. But the gentle Indian policeman, who constantly worried about what people thought of him, was considered an unfashionable protagonist for the 1990s and, on the advice of agents and publishers, Keating ended Ghote’s career with the novel Breaking and Entering (2000). He then created a British female detective, Harriet Martens, who was to star in seven novels, commencing with The Hard Detective (2000). The audio-book versions of the novels were read by Keating’s wife, the actor Sheila Mitchell, whom he had married in 1953.
Ghote was gone but not forgotten and, despite having deposited most of his research files and notes in a Kensington recycling bin, Keating resurrected him in Inspector Ghote’s First Case (2008) and A Small Case for Inspector Ghote? (2009), two prequels set in the early 1960s, when the influence of the British Raj was still a tangible memory. Keating deliberately chose a historical setting, realising that the Ghote of Bombay, as originally envisaged, could not exist in modern Mumbai.
Apart from his own crime fiction, which won him numerous awards – including a second gold dagger for The Murder of the Maharajah (1980), and, in 1996, the CWA’s diamond dagger for lifetime achievement – Keating established an awesome reputation as an expert on the genre. He served as chairman of the CWA (1970-71); president of the Detection Club (1985-2000), a group of mystery writers; and chairman of the Society of Authors (1983-84).
As a critic, he reviewed crime fiction for the Times from 1967 to 1983. He treated as a challenge the restriction of having no more than 30 words per book to encapsulate his opinion and always preferred to recommend rather than revile titles. He wrote and lectured on Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes; edited the critical surveys Crime Writers (1978) and Whodunit? (1982); and wrote the guide Writing Crime Fiction (1986).
Bravely, and controversially, he chose his personal favourites from the genre in Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books (1987). In 1977 he had identified the first of what he thought would be “a considerable stream” of more violent thrillers in the work of a then unknown author, James Patterson. He also predicted great things for a British crime writer, Jacqueline Wilson, who was soon to turn from crime to children’s fiction.
Never comfortable with computers or the internet, Keating retained a great affection for fountain pens and letter-writing. In 1980, he acted as a go-between for Glidrose Productions, owners of the rights to the James Bond novels, to recruit the thriller writer John Gardner to continue the franchise. Gardner later recalled that the Keating approach had come “handwritten, on Basildon Bond notepaper”.
In 2000, Keating and I were asked to jointly compile the 100 best crime novels of the 20th century for the Times and, with only two exceptions and virtually no argument, the list was agreed, with justification for each title, amicably and to deadline, by post. To mark his 80th birthday in 2006, the Detection Club produced an anthology of new crime stories in his honour, The Verdict of Us All. The contributors list – including Colin Dexter, PD James, Reginald Hill and, with his first short story for 30 years, Len Deighton – showed the respect and affection felt for Keating.
Keating was born in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, and educated at Merchant Taylors’ school in Middlesex and Trinity College Dublin, where he read English and French. He was said to have written his first story, entitled Jim’s Adventure, aged eight, the framed first page of which, picked out with two fingers on his father’s typewriter, had pride of place in his study.
After training as a journalist with the Westminster Press Group in Slough, Keating joined the Daily Telegraph in 1956 and settled in Notting Hill, west London, where he was to remain in the same house for more than 50 years. The Perfect Murder, and three of the other early Inspector Ghote titles, will be republished next month.
He is survived by Sheila; his children, Simon, Piers, Hugo and Bryony; and nine grandchildren.
• Henry Reymond Fitzwalter Keating, writer and critic, born 31 October 1926; died 27 March 2011