Robert Richardson obituary

Crime writer who drew on his experience as a Fleet Street journalist to colour his thrillers

The crime writer Robert Richardson, who has died aged 80, started out as the inventor of Gus (Augustus) Maltravers, an erudite playwright and classic amateur sleuth in the tradition of the English detective novel/story. The plots of his books, with and without Maltravers, included such features as rare Bibles, a lost Sherlock Holmes manuscript and the murder of a Fleet Street gossip columnist. Richardson drew on his experience as a national newspaper journalist – including at the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday and the Observer – to colour some of his mysteries.

His first novel, The Latimer Mercy (1985), published by Gollancz as one of its celebrated yellow-jacket crime series, won the John Creasey award from the Crime Writers’ Association.

This marked the start of a long relationship with the CWA, including two periods as its chair (1993-94 and 2006-07). After that successful debut came Bellringer Street (1988), set in a thinly disguised Hatfield, Hertfordshire, where Richardson lived. A weekend away for Maltravers and his actress partner Tess Davy is disrupted by the theft of a skeleton from the local stately home, with various shocking consequences; it too was well received, and a further four Maltravers novels followed.

Robert Richardson with the Red Herring award from the Crime Writers’ Association.
Robert Richardson with the Red Herring award from the Crime Writers’ Association. Photograph: CWA

Then came three stand-alone psychological thrillers, the most successful being The Hand of Strange Children in 1993, where the discovery of two bodies in a Hertfordshire house reveals how a murder from the past has, over 30 years, destroyed the lives of the family involved. The book was nominated for the CWA Gold Dagger award, and PD James noted that Richardson knew how to “create suspense and an atmosphere of incipient evil”.

Richardson was heavily involved in organising the annual conventions of the CWA, where members spent a weekend, usually in a seaside hotel, being treated to lectures and talks on criminology. On the social side, he would devise and host quizzes on crime fiction, which though popular with members were invariably described as “fiendishly difficult”.

Born in Stretford, Manchester, Robert was brought up largely by his mother. At Stretford grammar school he excelled at English and acquired the nickname Bob the Bard for his penchant for quoting Shakespeare and Dickens at any given opportunity.

He opted for journalism soon after leaving school at 16, joining the Manchester County Express in 1959 as an indentured trainee based in the Stockport office, covering Gorton, Levenshulme and Moss Side.

To advance his career he switched from reporter to subeditor in the Manchester office of the Daily Mail. In 1968, he married Gwyneth Hunt. The couple divorced two years later.

Following this, Richardson moved south to become the editor of the Welwyn and Hatfield Times and the Herts Advertiser. In Hatfield, his newly adopted home town, he met Sheila Miller while both were volunteering for the Samaritans. They married in 1974: Robert became stepfather to Sheila’s son, Michael, and the couple had a son, James.

In 1987 he moved to Fleet Street, first as a subeditor on the features desk of the newly established Independent and then, in 1994, to the Observer. In 2000 he joined a new venture, the Sunday Business, as deputy chief sub-editor. When the paper failed in 2004, Richardson returned to the Observer, also working on the Guardian’s business desk and Money section. He was a stickler for detail, but his unstintingly polite and jovial manner made him popular with colleagues, and in 2014 he retired from the Guardian.

Richardson had always taken an interest in local history, and wrote The Book of Hatfield (1978) and, with Beryl Carrington, Yesterday’s Town: St Albans, (1986). In 1998 he wrote and narrated the promotional DVD Hatfield Goes Back to the Future.

Following a diagnosis of Lewy Body dementia, in 2017 he moved to Dore, near Sheffield, to be closer to his family. In 2020 he received a special Red Herring award for services to the Crime Writers’ Association.

He is survived by Sheila, Michael and James, two granddaughters and three grandsons.

• Robert Oliver Richardson, crime writer and journalist, born 26 September 1940; died 31 August 2021

Contributor

Mike Ripley

The GuardianTramp

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