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Leslie Thomas

Writer

Writer

Born: March 22, 1931; Died: May 6, 2014

Leslie Thomas, who has died aged 83, was a journalist and author best-known for his first novel, The Virgin Soldiers (1966), which drew on his experiences of National Service in Malaya at the beginning of the 1950s. It was successfully adapted for film in 1969 with Hywel Bennett, Lynn Redgrave and Nigel Davenport; there were sequels in both print and on screen in the novel Onward Virgin Soldiers (1971) and the film Stand Up, Virgin Soldiers (1977).

Though Thomas produced more than 30 novels and enjoyed respectable sales - he notched up figures of 14 million copies internationally for his books - none of the others quite matched the success or reception of his first.

His prose was unaffected; often broadly comic, it could on occasion be affecting and capture atmosphere effectively. He never enjoyed a reputation as a literary stylist, nor were his other books consistent enough in tone or subject to build the sort of following won by near-contemporaries such as Tom Sharpe or George MacDonald Fraser. The adjectives which reviewers tended to attach to his output were "productive", "unaffected" and "middle-brow".

Thomas was, in other words, one of the last examples of a rather old-fashioned breed; an industrious writer of (non-genre) fiction without pretensions to literary greatness, or even the plaudits of the Booker judges, who won a wide audience, popular recognition and reasonable financial rewards. He was a staple of the lending libraries, colour supplements and, to some degree, television chat shows and documentaries.

Though positively timid by today's standards, what was seen as the earthy (some thought coarse) content of The Virgin Soldiers was undoubtedly responsible for his following. In 1970, Kingsley Amis wrote to Philip Larkin, complaining that His Lordship, Thomas's fifth novel, was insufficiently racy, but adding: "At least reading that sort of thing helps to keep one in touch." If the tone was dismissive, it also suggested Thomas's place as a mainstream novelist of the day, against whose work Amis was keen to measure his own.

Leslie John Thomas was born on March 22 1931 at Newport, south Wales, into a seafaring family. His grandfather had rounded the Horn, but left naval life because he objected to his shipmates' bad language; his father David died at sea when he was torpedoed in 1943.

When their mother Dorothy died six months later, Leslie and his brother Roy were taken in by a Barnado's home at Kingston-upon-Thames. Leslie was educated at Kingston Technical School and the South West Essex Technical College at Walthamstow, before signing up with local newspapers around London.

His apprenticeship on papers was interrupted by National Service in Malaya from 1949 to 1951 in the Army (in which, his Who's Who entry noted laconically, he "rose to Lance-Corporal"). It provided him with a glimpse of the activities of Communist guerrillas, and a taste for travel, as well as the material for The Virgin Soldiers.

He returned to work for local papers, before moving to the Exchange Telegraph News Agency in 1953. As a reporter, he thrived and was taken on, in 1955, by the London Evening News, as sub-editor, then as a reporter and Special Writer. Amongst the stories he covered were the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a series of Royal Tours and the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill.

In 1964, he published a memoir of his experiences as a Barnado's Boy, This Time Next Week, which was well received (and was, in the 1970s and 1980s, often used as a set text for schoolchildren). Thomas retained his connections with the charity, and was later to become a Vice-President of Barnardo's.

After the success of The Virgin Soldiers, he quit daily journalism to become a full-time novelist, though he made frequent contributions to newspapers for most of his working life. He produced a novel a year in the early stages of that career; Orange Wednesday (1967); The Love Beach (1968); Come to the War (1969); His Lordship (1970); Onward Virgin Soldiers (1971); Arthur McCann and All His Women (1972), and so on, slowing slightly in the 1980s, when every second year was the norm, though he managed to publish nine volumes during the 1990s.

Amongst the more successful were Tropic of Ruislip (1974) and the series of books dealing with Dangerous Davies, "the last detective" - the first in 1976, with Dangerous in Love (1987) Dangerous by Moonlight (1993) and Dangerous Davies and the Lonely Heart in 1998 - both of which were adapted for television. The Davies series, about a mild-mannered detective in the London suburb of Willesden, featured Bernard Cribbens and then Peter Davison in the lead role.

Thomas published a second memoir, In My Wildest Dreams, in 1984 and wrote a number of non-fiction books. He was very keen on travel and had an abiding passion for islands, which led to a Channel Four Series Great British Isles in 1989.

He lived in a remarkably beautiful house in the Cathedral close at Salisbury in Wiltshire; his last book, a miscellany, was Almost Heaven: Tales from a Cathedral (2010). He had been ill for some time and died on Tuesday.

Leslie Thomas was twice married, first, to Maureen Crane in 1956. They had two sons and a daughter before the marriage was dissolved. He married, secondly, Diana Miles, in 1970, with whom he had a son. She and his children survive him.

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