Feature article

Rembembering Hugh Crauford Rae 1936-2014

Sunday 1 February 2015

Hugh Crauford Rae known to readers as Jessica Stirling

Hugh Crauford Rae died on 24th September 2014, aged 78. Although better known to readers of romantic fiction as Jessica Stirling, in fact he published over seventy books from thrillers to detective fiction, under several different pseudonyms.

A Glaswegian through and through, he sold his first short story at eleven and left school at sixteen to work in and antiquarian bookshop, gleaning along the way a love of second-hand books and creating an  invaluable reference library, which eventually filled a henhouse near his home. He wrote in his spare time selling short stories, mostly to the American market, before his thriller, Skinner, earned him enough to give up the day job.
Many books followed before Hodder & Stoughton suggested that he should try a Scottish saga. Hugh teamed up with Peggy Coghlan, a talented short-story writer, who helped him with the feminine viewpoint for the first few books but subsequently he flew solo, having nailed the female psyche.

In all, he wrote nearly forty sweeping sagas as Jessica Stirling and they were immensely successful. His editor since 1983, Carolyn Caughey, said: “Hugh Rae was one of the most gifted, most professional and nicest authors I have ever worked with.”

Hodder preserved the fiction that Jessica was a woman for many years, but Hugh was ‘outed’ when his novel The Wind from the Hills was shortlisted for the RNA Award, then known as the Parker Romantic Novel of the Year. The national media were fascinated by the deception and gave the award a good deal of publicity.

Above all, Hugh was a writer’s writer. He was immensely generous with his time and expertise, mentoring novice writers, and his incisive criticism, could be brutal, was always tempered with encouragement. He often started his crits with a suggestion that the writer should sit down by the fire with a large gin before they started reading but he was unfailingly constructive and many multi-published authors credit Hugh with their journey to publication.

A natural teacher, he always spoke without notes yet, over twenty years, I never heard him give the same talk twice. He paced as he spoke and his passion was inspiring. He excelled in explaining the technicalities of the craft of writing, but in such a way that many had that sudden ‘light-bulb moment’ when they understood something which had long confused them.

His health prevented him from attending functions in recent years, but previously he used to say that he measured his year by writers’ events. He loved the RNA and relished his trips to London for parties, which were always combined with theatre trips and the latest exhibitions, for Hugh was an art aficionado.

Hugh was always surrounded at parties and could usually be found outside with the other smokers, holding court. He particularly enjoyed the company of young, up-and-coming writers, finding their enthusiasm infectious and he said these events kept him going through the hard slog of ‘putting your bum on the chair and scattering words’.

He always attended the Conferences and was the main speaker a couple of times when his entertaining but informative style guaranteed a rapt audience.

Hugh was a keen sportsman, who played tennis into his seventies. His perfect day would find him writing all morning, playing tennis or golf in the afternoon and watching American television all evening.

Hugh had many friends in the RNA and will be very much missed.

Written by Lyn McCulloch

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