Obituary: Julian Rathbone

Witty and imaginative novelist who was twice Booker-nominated and never confined by genre

"Art is not serious," wrote the novelist Julian Rathbone in an essay "cobbled together" for a collection of his work, The Indispensable Julian Rathbone, in 2003. "[Art] is frivolous. It is subversive. It is ludic, it is play, it is Kubrick's train set. It is the best thing we have on this squidgy little planet." A single paragraph later, Rathbone took a sharp turn. "I can get very angry," he wrote. "Here are the things that make me angry." He then compiled a short annotated list. At the top of the list was "people who take themselves seriously".

Anyone who has read even a small part of Rathbone's diffuse output over the past 40 years will recognise the sound of that voice and its capacity for sudden turns. It is the voice of a funny, cross, feeling man with a poetic streak a mile wide and a proximate eye for the wonders of sex and death. He was, literally, a wonderful writer. He always expressed that wonder from a position close to that occupied by the underdog. The curs and whelps of history were his field.

Rathbone, who has died aged 73 after a long illness, was born in Blackheath, south London, even though the family then lived in Liverpool. "I was born in Blackheath because [the nursing home] was part-owned and run by my Aunt Helen and so it was free," he recalled. Historically, the Rathbones were shipbuilders, philanthropists, Unitarians, independent-minded politicians, writers and thesps - "Basil Rathbone was a great actor, ruined by Sherlock Holmes" (Julian was Basil's great nephew). Currently, there are also Rathbone musicians, painters, potters, artisans, photographers and quilters. "Not many of us work happily for someone else," said Julian. Rathbones are made typical by "being as untypical as can be".

He went to a boarding school in Dorset and was given to wearing a large hat and a quantity of rings. He read English at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he studied under FR Leavis and knew Bamber Gascoigne and Sylvia Plath. After university, he taught English in Turkey for three years, an experience which politicised him profoundly. "The sudden and really disturbing insight into third world poverty" was a revelation. Equally confoundingly, for a young man far from home, Rathbone's father was killed in his absence in a road accident (an event explored more than 35 years later in the novel Blame Hitler) and so Rathbone returned to England in the early 1960s to be closer to his mother and to teach in Bognor Regis.

Rathbone's first four novels, published between 1967 and 1972, were set in Turkey and did well enough to convince the author to commit himself fully to writing and give up teaching for good. He then took himself off to Spain for a year with Alayne, the woman who would become his wife. He was 38, Laney 20. They had a great time. In Salamanca, he wrote, taught and directed A Midsummer Night's Dream for the English faculty. Five novels set in Spain were subsequently forthcoming. The last of these, Joseph, a lengthy fiction about the Peninsular war, was a contender for the 1979 Booker prize, following a nomination for the same gong in 1976 with King Fisher Lives.

Rathbone was an old-school libertarian lefty. His detestation of privilege and the structures which maintain it was profound. His contempt for them was expressed by turn frighteningly, wittily and sexily, and often all at once, but never, ever dully or rhetorically. There are crime novels in his canon and there are thrillers, but he was by no means a genre writer. Rather, he deployed a rampant imagination to conceive of worlds he might intrude on to get to what he needed to say.

He would not have been grossly offended to be described as having 19th-century ideas about how to write novels. Nevertheless, James Joyce was a lifelong passion, but his most obvious and frequently acknowledged influence was Graham Greene, to whom Rathbone was moved to send a copy of his Lying in State in 1985, "as a way of acknowledging that what was good in what I had written was good because, in part, of what I had got from him, and I wanted to thank him."

Greene wrote back from Antibes: "I think your book a good one!" Rathbone had the letter framed in his study in the rose-gated house he lived in with Laney and their son and daughter in the New Forest on the Hampshire-Dorset border.

Literary history should delight in Rathbone's late, and highly successful, excursion into the realm of historical fiction - it will hold the books up and say, "now there was a really interesting voice". The biggest seller of these was The Last English King (1997), which Rathbone embarked on after snorting at Mel Gibson's William Wallace fantasy, Braveheart. The Last English King told the story of the Norman invasion from the point of view of the Saxons attempting to see off the Conqueror. The narrative is shot through with strange anachronisms and the usual shafts of Rathbonian wit and poetry, not to mention a full measure of Norman/Anglo-Saxon gob. "Cry God for William, England and Saint ... Who's the patron saint of England, Odo?" bawls the hooligan Duke at the foot of Senlac Hill. "You're a fucking bishop, aren't you? You ought to know."

Kings of Albion (2000) deposited a small group of oriental tourists in the middle of the unpleasant dynastic struggle that was the Wars of the Roses and exposed them to English toffs, football, Big Bang theory and the weather, while A Very English Agent (2002) resurrected Rathbone's unsavoury and totally unreliable narrator from Joseph, kitting him out as an agent provocateur for the establishment over the years of early 19th-century English radicalism. Bosham/Boylan was still going strong in America in Birth of a Nation (2004).

Rathbone's most recent historical novel is The Mutiny (2007), which examines the Indian uprising of 1857. Wit, anger, feeling, erudition: all of the Rathbonian qualities were on display in the last words he wrote in The Indispensable Julian Rathbone. They stand neither as an epitaph, nor as a manifesto but they don't half sound like him thinking about stuff like that. Here's a handful of sentences: "Genes may be selfish but what keeps them alive is not a drive to avoid extinction, but their carriers' passion to stay alive, because being alive is such good fun. There's no need to be hung up about death and dying. What's the least important part of a sentence? The full stop, of course."

He leaves his wife and children.

Mike Ripley writes: Although only distantly related to actor Basil Rathbone - he never actually met him - Julian would always cheerfully "support the family name" at crime writing conventions and was the presenter of the inaugural Sherlock Awards for crime writing established by the Sherlock Holmes Magazine in 1998. He also cheekily paid homage to Basil Rathbone's second most famous role, that of the villainous Guy of Gisbourne (enemy of Errol Flynn's Robin Hood) in A Very English Agent, where the protagonist is chillingly warned: "You have come to Nottingham once too often."

· Julian Rathbone, novelist, born February 10 1935; died February 28 2008

· This article was amended on Thursday March 6 2008. Basil Rathbone played Guy of Gisbourne in the 1938 film Robin Hood, rather than the Sheriff of Nottingham, as we said above in the obituary of his great-nephew, Julian Rathbone. Melville Cooper played the sheriff. This has been corrected.


Nick Coleman

The GuardianTramp

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