H.R.F. Keating

H.R.F. Keating, one of the grand old men of the British crime and detective fiction community, and a notable detective novelist in his own right, died on March 27, 2011. What follows is the piece I wrote about him for the forthcoming 100 British Crime Writers book. He’s a sad loss to the crime and detective fiction community.

Author of over 50 books, including the popular and acclaimed Inspector Ghote series of detective novels, formerly a journalist, and crime fiction reviewer for the The Times newspaper (London). Although a British-based writer, Keating is notable for having set his most successful work in India, Inspector Ghote being an officer of the Bombay (Mumbai) Police. Along with Julian Symons, Keating was an important crime and detective fiction book reviewer in the 1960s and 1970s; he was the author of books about Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, and How To Write Crime Fiction (1986).

H.R.F. Keating—known as Harry—was born on October 31, 1926, in St. Leonards on Sea, East Sussex and attended Merchant Taylor’s School, London, before reading Modern Languages at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1953 he married Sheila Mitchell, with whom he had four children. In 1956 the couple moved to London, where Keating became a journalist with the Daily Telegraph. He later moved to The Times, where he was the crime fiction reviewer for 15 years. Keating was encouraged to write and publish his stories by his wife, and his first published novel, the surreal Death and the Visiting Firemen, appeared in 1959.

Inspector Ganesh Ghote

Inspector Ghote first appeared in the 1964 novel The Perfect Murder, which won the Crime Writers’ Association’s (CWA) prestigious Gold Dagger Award in Britain and the Edgar Allan Poe Award in the United States. It was Keating’s sixth published novel and those that came before were successful in Britain. In their Good Reading Guide to Murder (1990), Kenneth and Valerie MacLeish describe books like Death and the Visiting Fireman (set in a firefighting conference) and Zen There Was Murder (set on a retreat for Zen Buddhists) as “brilliant spoofs.” But these books did not translate well to American audiences and were never published in the United States.

Keating began working on the Inspector Ghote books partly as a response to this sense of being ‘too English.’ In search of somewhere exotic as a setting for his next story Keating reported sitting down with an Atlas and picking India almost on a whim. The Perfect Murder was an almost immediate success on both sides of the Atlantic, and Ghote featured in a series of books published more or less annually for the next 15 years.

Ghote’s bankability as a character is evident in the titles published in the 1960s and early 1970s: Inspector Ghote’s Good Crusade (1966), Inspector Ghote Caught in Meshes (1967), Inspector Ghote Hunts the Peacock (1968), and so on. Keating’s novels were also popular in India, but it is worth noting that he did not visit the country for the first time until ten years after the publication of the first Ghote novel. Until then his only experience of India was from research; after his visit he claimed to have found writing the books more difficult.

Julian Symons, who categorised Keating, in Bloody Murder (1985), as an ‘entertainer’ nevertheless thought highly of him as a writer, and believed he had been ‘hampered’ by Ghote, and prevented from developing in more interesting directions. Symons gives The Murder of the Maharajah (1980), a non-Ghote mystery which earned Keating his second Golden Dagger, as an example, and says that it ‘shows what Keating can do when free of Ghote’ (Symons, 1985: 190).

From the late 1970s Keating wrote Ghote novels more intermittently, in between standalone novels and other series. In 1978 he published an apocalyptic science fiction novel, A Long Walk to Wimbledon, and between 1984 and 1986 he published three novels as Evelyn Hervey. From 2000 he pursued his Harriett Martens series about a female Detective Inspector in the British police force, and in 2008 returned to Inspector Ghote, with a prequel, Inspector Ghote’s First Case, and, in 2009, A Small Case for Inspector Ghote?

Nonfiction

Keating’s non-fiction has been similarly influential. In 1977 his book Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime was the first book about Christie to appear after her death, while Writing Crime Fiction (1986) remains a perceptive and important guide to writing in the genre. In 1987 Keating published Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books, containing short critical pieces on the 100 books Keating thought were the best in the genre up to that point. In terms of influence Keating’s list was equivalent to that drawn up by Symons for the Times thirty years earlier. Yet despite his success, Keating’s work never made the transition from book to television or film in a significant way. Of Keating’s more than 50 novels, only one, The Perfect Murder, has so far been adapted for film (by Ismail Merchant, in 1998).

Besides his writing Keating was an active member of the crime and detective writing community. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he was Chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association (1970-1971), The Society of Authors (1983-1984), and was President of the Detection Club (1985-2000). In 1996 he received the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger in honour of his remarkable lifetime service to crime writing.

Keating died on March 27, 2011.

Further Reading

H.R.F. Keating website. http://hrfkeating.com (accessed 24 August 2010).

Ripley, Mike. Obituary in The Guardian, March 28, 2011. Online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/mar/28/hrf-keating-obituary

Tamaya, Meera. H.R.F. Keating: Post-Colonial Detection (A Critical Study) Bowling Green (OH): Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993.

By Chris Routledge



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