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HRF Keating: A Life of Crime – Review

April 15, 2020

Henry ‘Harry’ Reymond Fitzwalter Keating was one of the most prolific and distinguished crime novelists and literary critics of the twentieth century. But by the time of his death in 2011 he was referring to himself as a ‘has-been’. This might seem difficult to believe now – Keating’s creation of Inspector Ghote is one of the most beloved of fictional detectives. So why did he end his days with this rather melancholy view of his achievements?

HRF Keating: A Life of Crime is the first biography of Keating and is also the literary debut of Keating’s widow, the actress Sheila Mitchell. Mitchell’s biography of Keating is an intimate and affectionate portrait of an author who achieved the elusive combination of literary acclaim and financial success. However, the final chapters are tinged with sadness. Not only because they deal with Keating’s declining health, but also his increasing despair at the slow death of publishing. His books got fewer and fewer print runs and were dogged by miniscule publicity budgets. But before we come to this somewhat downbeat ending, Mitchell skilfully and engagingly chronicles Keating’s education at Trinity College, the launch of his career in journalism and his early attempts at writing fiction.

Keating had a number of short stories and novels published before he hit the big time with his introduction of Inspector Ghote of the Bombay (now Mumbai) police in The Perfect Murder in 1964. Keating’s writing was praised for its rich in detail and accurate portrayal of India, but ironically he didn’t visit the country until about a decade after the first Ghote novel was published. He first travelled to India after he was invited as part of a publicity campaign by Air India. Ghote’s incisive intelligence and gentle, unassuming manner is credited with dispelling the stereotypical ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ humour about Indians which had been common at the time. Among his many other works Keating wrote science-fiction, a novel in verse and created the series character DCI Harriet Martens, but his first and true love on the page was always Inspector Ghote.

Mitchell’s portrayal of Keating is teeming with joyous little details. His preferred writing conditions were absolute silence, which must have been difficult to achieve as they raised four children together. His aversion to noise was such that he was practically traumatised after sitting through an overly loud production of a Tom Stoppard play. By temperament, Keating was the most English of writers. He was once mugged while walking near a dark canal and politely asked the assailant to give him his wallet back once he had removed the dosh, which the obliging mugger dutifully did.

Keating’s passing immediately launched a revival of interest in his work. Penguin reissued several Ghote novels in their Modern Classics series. Audiobooks of his novels, several narrated by Mitchell, have become popular. And more and more contemporary novelists have spoken out about their love of Keating’s work. It’s comforting to know that Keating was wrong to think of himself as a ‘has-been’. Interest in his work will continue to grow.

HRF Keating: A Life of Crime is a fine biography worthy of its illustrious subject.

 

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