When Jessica Stirling finally decided to unmask herself as the alter ego of author Hugh Rae, it was done in typical, tongue-in-cheek style. Confirming the rumours, Rae admitted “she” was indeed “a feller, a tall, dark, handsome feller, suave as a yard of shantung – and a born liar to boot”.
It had been an open secret in literary circles for more than 20 years but now here was Rae confessing to his readers that “Jessica”, author of more than 30 historical romances, a figure who might once have turned a few heads at the Tesco checkout, looked “more like Albus Dumbledore”.
But it was an apt illustration of his ability to metamorphose seamlessly, to embrace an astonishing range of genres from writer of thrillers to science-fiction, action adventure, fantasy and historical sagas – almost everything bar westerns.
And that talent resulted in a bibliography of more than 70 fiction titles, under several pseudonyms. Some were written for economic reasons but his Jessica Stirling novels were produced purely because he was asked and rose to the challenge posed by a major publisher.
Although he enjoyed enormous literary success, it had not always been so: he began as a poet and short-story writer, a craft he disliked. And as he explained in his blog, the life of a professional writer could be hard work, frustrating and not nearly so exciting as the uninitiated might perceive.
“The squalid truth is that to put approximately 150,000 words of reasonably intelligible prose on screen, or on paper for that matter, requires even the most glamorous author to park his or her bum on a chair for about as long as it takes to paint the Forth Bridge.”
Rae, the son of riveter and maintenance man Robert Rae and his wife Isobel, was born in Glasgow and was known by his family by his middle name of Crauford. He said he began writing as soon as he could hold a pencil and broke into print aged 11 with a piece in the comic Robin.
Various other short pieces, and some drawings, followed in the junior pages of national newspapers and magazines. Although his first love was art, and he had hoped to go to art school, that career choice was frowned upon and on leaving Glasgow’s Knightswood Senior Secondary School at 16 he went immediately into work as an assistant in the antiquarian department of John Smith’s bookshop.
He remained there throughout the 1950s and early 60s, apart from National Service in the RAF during which, he joked, he had “flown an Olivetti”.
Meanwhile he was writing after work and at the weekends, producing what he described as inferior poetry and a clutch of short stories which appeared mainly in American magazines. His big break came when he was 28 with the publication of his novel Skinner, a fictionalisation of the notorious Peter Manuel case.
Rae had married his wife Elizabeth, a colleague at John Smith’s, whose uncle had worked with Peter Manuel, the notorious serial killer who terrorised the West of Scotland in the 1950s. Basing Skinner on the case of Manuel, who was hanged for seven murders including three members from each of two families, he tried to fathom the psychology of the criminal mind. It was the first of his thrillers, essentially tartan noir, though that term had yet to be coined.
Skinner was followed by several novels, published under his own name, including Night Pillow, A Few Small Bones, The Interview, The Shooting Gallery, The Marksman and Harkfast: The Making of a King, a book about Druids. He also wrote as Robert Crawford, R B Houston and James Albany – the latter the pen name for a series on the SAS for publisher Severn House – and collaborated with Stuart Ungar on The Minotaur Factor and The Poison Tree as author Stuart Stern.
When major publisher Hodder & Stoughton offered him a niche on its list but told him the novels would be aimed at women and strongly feature women, he took up the challenge. It satisfied his desire to get to grips with the “big” novel, full of colourful historical backgrounds, a large cast of characters and intricate plots.
In order to do so, he looked for a writing partner and found one in his best friend in Glasgow Writers’ Club, Peggie Coghlan. She had a pedigree as a short-story writer, a brilliant plotter and researcher but had never had a book published. He had 20 novels behind him, a similar fascination for research, was a stickler for historical accuracy and the expertise to perfect her draft. Their talents complemented each other perfectly and together they wrote the initial half-dozen or so Jessica Stirling books. They produced the first, The Spoiled Earth, in eight months.
After seven years together, Peggie retired and Rae went on to write approximately another 30 Jessica Stirling books on his own. The Constant Star appeared in hardback in August. A murder mystery set in Dublin, Whatever Happened to Molly Bloom, also by Jessica Stirling, is being published by Severn House at the end of this month.
‘‘Hugh Rae was one of the most gifted, most professional and nicest authors I have ever worked with,” said Carolyn Caughey, his editor since at Hodder & Stoughton since 1983.
“His books were unfailingly both absolutely gripping and wonderfully researched. He had an exceptional gift for dialogue: you could hear his characters speak as you read their words. And not just the Scottish voices – he was equally at home with London and Irish characters, in particular.”
Rae, who was involved in setting up the series of author talks regarded as being the first Edinburgh Book Festival also lectured in creative writing at Glasgow University Adult Education classes and was a generous mentor, encouraging many Scottish writers to improve and become published authors.
He also served on the Scottish Arts Council, on committees of the Scottish Association of Writers and Society of Authors in Scotland and was a lead organiser of writers’ conferences, particularly well-known for his appearances at Swanwick Writers’ summer school.
“He loved to pass on his knowledge and was a dynamic speaker, with a characteristic trick of pushing his trademark thick-rimmed glasses up on to the top of his head before reading out a few lines which illustrated the point he was making at the time,” recalled fellow author Maggie Craig. “Otherwise he spoke fluently, with great humour and without notes, and over 20 years I never heard him give the same talk twice. He always had something new to tell us.
‘‘He was wonderfully analytic too – I remember him doing a brilliant dissection of Silence of the Lambs.”
Away from literature, he loved movies and sport, had played basketball in his youth and coached a women’s basketball team semi-professionally in the 1960s, but most other things were a distraction from the job he loved and from which he never retired.
He continued writing right up until the day he died though, as he had told his readers in his blog: “It’s tough at times and it’s hard to make a decent living out of scattering words on a page but, oh boy, when it sings, it really sings – and, like the man says, it sure beats working.”
Widowed nine years ago, he is survived by his daughter Gillian.