In 1996, ten years after the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) first began presenting the Diamond Dagger, H.R.F. Keating was the eleventh recipient of this prestigious life-time achievement award for outstanding service to crime fiction. With his background in this particular field of writing it was more than appropriate that Keating should be honoured in this way.
The author’s first crime novel was published in 1959. Five years and an equal number of books later he won a Gold Dagger for The Perfect Murder. It was this book that introduced his best-known creation: Ganesh Ghote, the Indian police inspector from Bombay.
Since then Keating has gone on to write some forty crime novels and numerous articles and reference books on the subject. For fifteen years he reviewed the genre for The Times. He has served as the Chairman of the CWA, and was the President of the Detection Club. The following is an overview of a career still in progress.
Henry Reymond Fitzwalter Keating—Harry to friends and acquaintances—was born in St. Leonard-on-Sea, a coastal town in Sussex, in 1926. Though his father was a headteacher, Keating initially was educated at a school away from his parents. The Second World War and subsequent evacuation saw him relocated to the school at which his father taught, and this had both advantages and disadvantages. Keating recalls, “I was allowed to bathe in my parents’ bathroom while the boys had theirs in rather lean, austere school-type baths and I always felt terribly guilty about this. Also, sometimes I would hear some gossip about the staff which I knew I shouldn’t pass on, but was terribly tempted to do. It was an awkward period.”
After taking his degree at Trinity College in Dublin—where Keating won the Vice-Chancellor’s prose prize—he chose a career in journalism. Returning to England he undertook a three-year stint at a regional newspaper as sub-editor. Moving on to The Daily Telegraph in 1956, he left it in 1958 to work for The Times. Instead of the excitement that the job-title of sub-editor might suggest, the work involved was somewhat disappointing. “In America sub-editors are called rewrite-men,” Keating explains. “It means you sit there and you receive a reporter’s copy and you decide how long it should be, you write the headline, and check the text for spelling, etc.” The future author found the work terribly dull. “I would go to work every day,” he says, “treading the same paving stones to the same office to sit in the same chair, and all around you’d hear people asking your friends, who were reporters, ‘Got your passport with you?’, or ‘Who’s going off the Africa this afternoon?’.”
Yet Keating also has happy memories. “When I went to work for The Times one of the senior people came up to me and whispered—they all whispered at The Times—’That used to be the chair that Graham Greene sat in’, and I thought ‘My golly, will his influence seep up from it still?” The illustrious predecessor was the author of such classic novels as The Third Man and Our Man in Havana.
Keating recognises that working on newspapers, structuring journalistic copy to improve the text, helped him in his future writing career. When he finally started to write fiction, he also was able to break some of the rules he previously was expected to enforce. “The Telegraph,” he says, “had a regulation that you should never use the word ‘very’. Either it was ‘red’ or it was not ‘red’, but it was never ‘very red’. It really took me years to be able to say something was ‘very’.” With a smile the author adds, “Eventually, when writing the Ghote books I was able to say, ‘very, very’.” In Keating’s perfectly imitated Asian lilt the doubled-up verb couldn’t sound more correct.
It was his wife, actress Sheila Mitchell, who persuaded her husband to give fiction writing a go. “Sheila said to me ‘Oh, you must write! You like detective stories don’t you, why not write one of those?’, and so I did. I wrote one, I wrote another, I wrote a third, which was then published, and that is how I started really.”
The first H.R.F. Keating novel to be accepted by a publisher was Death and the Visiting Firemen, and the author found his inspiration for the plot in his earlier personal experiences as a journalist in Swindon. “I’d gone on a coach drawn by four horses, taking loyal greetings to the new Queen on Coronation Day,” the author recalls. “The paper decided they’d like to send me along, all dressed up in a hired coat and a hat. I also borrowed a scarf from this girl I was interested in at the local repertory theatre called Sheila Mitchell.” He continues, “So, I learnt a little about what happens in a coach and four and I decided to use that as a background together with a story I had covered when some American fire prevention officers came to a conference in Britain. In those days, the nineteen-fifties, most people didn’t fly, they came by liner instead. In my book I had a coach and horses waiting to meet them at Southampton, and the plot developed from there.”
Keating tried to find different, curious, and original settings for each of the books that followed, and the fifth was supposed to be just another in a series of one-off novels. However, in an attempt to break into the American market he set the book, A Perfect Murder, in India and made the protagonist a Bombay policeman called Ganesh Ghote.
“What American publishers complained about,” the author explains, “was that my books were too British. In those days they weren’t altogether as much in favour of the cosy as they are nowadays, and when it won the Gold Dagger, and was subsequently published in America, everybody said ‘Oh you should go on with Inspector Ghote’.”
It made perfect sense to continue with the sleuth because India was very fashionable at the time.
Having never visited India himself when he started writing The Perfect Murder, Keating was given a lot of information by Wally Olins, a prominent advertising executive who had just come back from Bombay. The Keatings—Harry by now had married Sheila—met Olins when he gave them a lift to a party.
“In those days,” Keating recalls with a smile, “what you did if anybody was giving you a lift was you gave them a drink—as you do not do now! I can still see him standing there with whatever drink I’d given him and I said ‘You’ve been to India, I’ve been thinking of setting a crime novel there’. ‘Marvellous idea,’ Olins said, ‘any help I can give you and I’ll cable Bombay’.” Keating repeats the antiquated word ‘cable’ nostalgically.
Once he had decided on the location the author read everything he could about India and, pointing at a chair in his study, Keating says, “One day I was sitting in the corner there reading a geography book about India when suddenly this man came into my head. I was going to call him Ghosh because I thought of him as being—as I am too—naïve. I heard him saying ‘Oh gosh! What is that?’. In the answer I could then explain to the reader whatever unlikely bit of Indian lore it was. I sent a short synopsis to my friend Wally Olins and he answered me in a panic saying ‘You say this book is set in Bombay but Ghosh is a Bengali name. It is as wrong as calling a French detective Ivan Ivanovich!’ It was Wally who suggested ‘Ghote’ which turned out to be quite a good name except that nobody knows how to pronounce it. So in the early days we used to add G-O-T-A-Y in brackets after his name on the blurb of the book jacket, and even that isn’t quite right because the first sound is a breathed G. I remember once being interviewed by Marghanita Laski, a famous lady known for her very firm opinions, and she said ‘You pronounce it ‘Hokay’, don’t you?!’. I was too shy to say ‘Well not quite as violently as that.’ People still come up to me and say I love that Inspector Goat.”
As Keating indicated, Ghote is very much linked to the author’s own personality. “Like Ghote,” he says, “I am reasonably shy and diffident myself and, though we both do manage to overcome it, I like to think that the shy get their rewards. Ghote gets his reward by discovering things brasher policemen do not. I put myself into this Indian and, when he’s faced with a situation that I have devised for him, I ask myself ‘What would I feel?’. I then translate this into what an Indian policeman hopefully might feel.”
It was not until some ten years after H.R.F. Keating had written the first Ghote novel that he finally was able to visit India. A war with neighbouring Pakistan had scuppered an earlier visit he had planned. At breakfast one morning in 1975, a letter arrived from Air India. The company, hearing that the author had never visited the country he had written so much about, offered him a return flight to India. Keating’s immediate reaction was not what one might expect. “I thought ‘When I actually smell some of those horrible smells and see the beggars with sores and everything, will it put me off?’. I think it might have done except that I had actually imagined it so firmly that I didn’t have the cultural shock that people frequently get when they see that side of India,” the author says.
Some six months after returning from his trip to India Keating went back, this time with a BBC television crew in tow. “They made this documentary which was about me, Bombay, and the Bombay police, and it was a very nice experience,” Keating remembers.
Throughout the Ghote novels the Bombay detective has been given a number of sidekicks to accompany him, Axel Svennson, in The Perfect Murder, being the first. “Again I was attempting not to be too English for the American publishers. Instead of an Englishman I went for European of some other sort. I didn’t want to make him American because I wasn’t too comfortable with the speech patterns. There were a lot of Scandinavian influences around at that time, and it was shortly after the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary-General of the United Nations.”
One of Keating’s favourite Ghote novels is Dead on Time because of a female helper who is always late. He also mentions the American sidekick in Inspector Ghote Caught in Meshes. The American was created by the author in the hope that the book might attract Hollywood attention. “I asked a friend who wrote film scripts ‘If I want this book to be attractive to film-makers, what should I put in?’ The friend thought for a moment and said, ‘Well of course you must have a pretty girl, and then you must have a part for Gregory Peck.’ So I named Ghote’s American co-hero Gregory—nudge, nudge—Strongbow. Many of my books have had some mild interest from film people, but never that one,” the author says smiling at the irony.
The book that was adapted for the big screen was The Perfect Murder, a film that was produced by Ismail Merchant, known for such Oscar winning films as A Room with a View and The Remains of the Day. Keating has mixed feelings about the experience. “Going out for the shooting of The Perfect Murder [UK] and actually hearing Indian actors saying these lines, some of which were exactly as they are in the book, that was fantastic. Also, I got to see a good deal more of Bombay because the whole thing was done on location,” the author says.
Keating wrote the script with the director Zafar Hai and they got on well together. However, as The Perfect Murder was Hai’s directing debut there was a downside. “Since it was his first feature film,” Keating says, “Zafar was a little inexperienced. As a director you’ve got to be tough with your actors and Zafar was very sweet but not very tough. So from that point of view it wasn’t entirely successful. I, on my part, had never written a film script. When we were working on the first draft together he stared at me with his big brown eyes and said ‘Harry, there’s something called the grammar of film…’, and I had blithely ignored the grammar of the film. Though gradually, under his tuition, I did learn a little about the effect of a cut, a fade, and all of that, but I really would have been happier if the film had been made by more experienced people.”
Ghote also appeared on television where he was more successful. The first was an adaptation of Inspector Ghote Hunts the Peacock, which was scripted by Hugh Leonard, the respected Irish playwright; Zia Mohgeddin played the Bombay detective. Thames Television also produced Inspector Ghote Moves In, an original synopsis written by Ghote’s creator. “They suggested I bring Ghote over to Britain because they didn’t like the notion of working in India,” Keating explains. “I devised a plot where Ghote, played by Simon Dastor, comes over to Britain. It also starred Irene Worth, and it was so successful that they asked for a further six episodes, but when I came to write the script for the second one, I found I wasn’t a TV writer.” Several other script-writers, including Rex Harrison’s son Carey, wrote further treatments, but Thames lost interest and the series never got made.
Less well-known, and created earlier than Ghote, is Mrs. Craggs, a charlady who made her first appearance when Keating was asked to write five stories for BBC Radio’s Woman’s Hour. The writer wondered, “Five… What five?”, before coming up with the idea of the five senses. “I vaguely had the notion of a charlady. Since she was successful on the radio, I then put Mrs. Craggs in the book Death of a Fat God.”
Over the years Keating wrote numerous stories about Mrs. Craggs. They were published in various crime fiction magazines, and together they appear in the collection Mrs. Craggs: Crimes Cleaned Up.
Another female series-protagonist created by the author is governess Harriet Unwin. These novels were written under the pseudonym Evelyn Hervey. Explaining their background Keating says with a smile, “They came about when my agent said to me, ‘Harry, could you diversify and make us a bit more money.’. We were having a lunch which went on and on, and got boozier and boozier. First of all I said ‘I’ll write them under another name’, and then I wondered ‘Why don’t I write them under a female name?’. After another glass of wine it became ‘Why don’t I write under a name which could be both male or female? So that is how Evelyn Hervey came into existence. Hervey was one of my father’s names,” Keating adds.
Having been a reviewer of crime fiction for The Times newspaper, and also Chairman of the CWA, Keating seems to be an ideal person to ask why, in Britain, the genre does not seem to receive the respect, or at least the attention, it enjoys in the United States.
“I suppose some of it is Agatha Christie’s fault. I’ve a great admiration for her work, but she was so successful with seemingly undemanding plots… When I meet people at parties and they ask what I do, they always say ‘However do you think up those Agatha Christie plots? It’s an immediate reaction.”
As for the lack of reviews in newspapers and magazines, Keating generously says, “It could be said that I collaborated in this. When The Times asked me to review, they asked me to write about three hundred words on one book, and then get in as many capsule reviews as possible. I think the then Literary Editor said, just off the cuff, thirty words each. I took this as a challenge. Could I say something about a book in thirty words? I allowed myself the title and publisher, they didn’t count, and in tight circumstances I would write thirty-one or thirty-two words. Words I could reasonably put a hyphen in between counted as one. Perhaps when readers of The Times saw these nine books reviewed in a column space of less than nine inches they vaguely thought ‘This can’t be all that important or good’, but it was a very good exercise in saying what a book was actually about, what its virtues were.”
When reviewing Keating would judge the books based on the promise of their contents. “I could make myself be equally enthusiastic about a spy story, a hard-boiled novel, or a cosy. As long as they were written truthfully is the only way to put it really. I tend not to like very violent plots because I often feel the authors put in violence for the sake of it. A book I’m very fond of is Len Deighton’s Violent Ward, which is set in Los Angeles at the time of the riots. It has scenes of horrifying violence, but he wrote it because he wanted to look at violence rather than wanting to give his readers a thrill.”
With crime novels by writers such as Deighton, P.D. James, and Andrew Taylor, skilled authors who explore human conflict in their books, Keating hopes that the snobbism towards the genre will change.
Having written traditional crime fiction for years, H.R.F. Keating did a complete turnabout in the early nineties and wrote the first in a series of police procedurals with hard-boiled elements. Again the impetus came from Keating’s agent who felt that the audience for the Ghote books was shrinking, and he asked his author whether it might be time for a different direction. Having agreed to write something different, Keating had to come up with a plot. As happens so often, inspiration came from a newspaper headline. “I was walking along,” he says, “and I saw the front-page of this newspaper: MILLION POUNDS POOLS WIN! I started thinking what could I do with a million pounds and realised that it wouldn’t be all good getting that much money. Then I thought ‘Maybe I could write about that?’. So I had this Detective Inspector who accidentally wins a million pounds, and I wrote about the complications that entails.” Having written The Rich Detective Keating decided he would write about various other detectives who have particular dilemmas in their work. Since The Rich Detective he has written The Good Detective, The Soft Detective respectively. “The latter has just gone to the publisher and comes out in January ’97,” the author says.
Fans of Keating’s cosier Ghote police procedurals might find the four-letter words in these far grittier novels shocking, and there are also less-than-happy endings to contend with. “I didn’t want to make them hard boiled for the sake of putting in viciousness,” the author says defending his new series. “I wanted to make them as real as possible. In fact my editor was a bit iffy about the ending of the first one but I insisted on having it. I think she just had doubts because they were such a departure.”
H.R.F. Keating’s most recent book is In Kensington Gardens Once a collection of short stories published by Flambard Press in Britain, and Crippen & Landru in the United States. “I often walk in Kensington Gardens before breakfast and one morning I suddenly realised that I had written four or five stories set in the gardens—one them is a Mrs Craggs. Usually short stories disappear into limbo once they have been published in a magazine and, because I liked some of them particularly, I decided to collect them and I eventually persuaded Peter and Margaret Lewis of Flambard Press to do the book.”
Accompanying the stories are twelve illustrations by Gwen Mandley, a friend of the Keatings. “I thought it would make it a nicer sort of book that people would want to buy, especially tourists who might buy it as a memento. Gwen is a very good artist—eighty-something years old and full of life—who lives just off the King’s Road. One day she went out and talked to the punks there and got them to come back into her studio where she did a whole series of drawings of King’s Road punks! I asked her if she would do some drawings, not necessarily illustrations of the stories, for In Kensington Gardens Once and she kindly agreed.”
With In Kensington Gardens Once about to be published, and The Soft Detective being readied for a January release in Britain, Keating is now working on his latest Ghote novel. “I’ve had it in my head for a long time. A year or so before he died Julian Symons asked me what the next Ghote was going to be called—at the time I thought this was going to be the next book—and I said Bribery, Corruption Also. ‘Good title!’ Julian said, and the title was set in stone from that moment on.”
Using Bribery, Corruption Also as an example Keating explains his writing process.
“This is how I really start: I want some aspect of human behaviour which interests me particularly, and in this book it is bribery. We tend to think of it as a bad thing, especially in the media. It actually can be quite a good thing. It oils the wheels of society, and it gets things done. Of course there is a moment where bribery turns into corruption and becomes something negative, but where do you draw that line?” Having decided on the subject Keating writes a first draft, and once that is completed, he will go over it again adding detail. Once he actually starts writing the process of completing a manuscript will take some six months.
When H.R.F. Keating was asked to diversify, the first thing he thought was “I can’t give up Ghote”, and fortunately for his fans he agreed to alternate his Ghote series with other novels. It’s not strange that the author refused to stop writing about his Indian policeman because the two are very much linked. “He develops along with me I think. I’ve found that this character was someone you could confront with quite different situations and he would discover different things about himself and about life by doing that. He really gets broader with each successive book,” Keating concludes.
© Copyright Adrian Muller, 1997/2020.