Stanley Reynolds obituary

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Stanley Reynolds, pictured in 1973, joined the Guardian in the 1960s as a critic, columnist and feature writer. Photograph: The Guardian

In 1986 the journalist and critic Stanley Reynolds, who has died aged 82, interviewed JP Donleavy, “the literary dandy and noted public house fist-fighter”. He backed up the two epithets with an account of a brawl on the Isle of Man, in which Donleavy took on six Irishmen and a Roman Catholic bishop, all of whom had come to rescue the young Edna O’Brien from an older lover, Ernest Gebler, “and bring the runaway Edna back to the bosom of her family, and a sin-free life back in Erin, green gem of the silver sea”. In the end, Edna stayed with her lover (they married in 1954), the assailants limped off, and Donleavy “counted six teeth on the sun-baked terrace overlooking the sea, counted his own incisors, canines, molars and gnashers and saw that none of the six were his”.

It was reportage, but Stan might have been writing about himself: an American abroad, a hard drinker, an occasional fighter and womaniser, and of course a literary dandy. Almost every column by Stan was an event: so too were his rare appearances at the Guardian’s London offices. He would occasionally appear dressed in denim, as if channelling the late Jack Kerouac; mostly he seemed an unlikely Lord Peter Wimsey figure, in the tweeds of the English gentry. In the hard-drinking world of bygone daily journalism he seemed to drink harder than most, and for a man who remained resolutely an American expatriate, he talked a lot about cricket.

He wrote, with perception and feeling, about literature, American, British and Russian; he wrote about theatre, television and sport; he argued with a charming mixture of aggression and diffidence; and he could be relied upon to deliver the unexpected.

In 1974, at the height of the cold war, as the Soviet Union exiled the Nobel laureate and dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – then a hero in the west – Stan was the first to point out that wishy-washy western liberals were going to find him uncomfortable: “Solzhenitsyn, I am afraid, is not one of us. That is to say he is not a liberal. I don’t know what exactly he is, but whatever it is, it is most peculiar.”

He also that same year, in a lurid account of a cricket tour of the south of England by the Liverpool cricket club, happily subverted the myth of the north. The southerner “sees us coming from tin shacks in our whitewashed pit boots, bellies full of thick-seamed tripe.

“Nothing could be further from the truth. Our cricket clubs are like our working men’s clubs, our Labour and Conservative clubs, all wall-to-wall and chrome, decor-ed up to the elbows and practically neon-lit. Old Trafford is a giant of a place, 20 bars, restaurants, fruit machines … Sometimes the cricket looks like an afterthought.”

Stan was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, which boasts, after New York, the largest St Patrick’s Day parade in the US. His father was Ambrose Harrington Reynolds, a sales manager for RJ Reynolds Tobacco, the firm that made Camel cigarettes, and his mother Irene Ducharme, a French Canadian. His military service was with the US army’s First Infantry Division, nicknamed the “Big Red One”, and he ended as Acting Sergeant Reynolds, a qualified marksman who once inadvertently invaded Canada – a mistake over grid references – but who never served overseas. He remained a US citizen all his life, and a Democrat.

His home town remained important to him. He became a reporter for the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram and then the Providence Journal in Rhode Island, but while still in Holyoke he met the Liverpudlian Gillian Morton, a student from St Anne’s College, Oxford, who was completing a year at Mount Holyoke College.

They married in 1958 and moved to Britain: she became the Guardian’s radio critic before joining the Daily Telegraph and staying for 40 years. He worked among other outlets for Reuters news agency and then in the 1960s joined the Guardian, as critic, columnist and feature writer. His first novel, the satire Better Dead than Red, was published in 1964 in the UK and North America, and translated into German and Italian. Anthony Burgess called it “savagely funny” and Malcolm Bradbury described it as “up there with Dr Strangelove”.

He and Gillian settled in Liverpool. He wrote the lyrics for a Liverpool Everyman production of George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion as a musical, and the book and lyrics for Desolation Angel, a musical tribute to Kerouac, performed at the Everyman and at the King’s Head in London.

After turning freelance, he continued to write for the Guardian as well as the Times. In 1982 he made a BBC documentary for a series called Great Little Railways, an account of a trip through the Andes in Ecuador. He had written for the humorous magazine Punch, and in 1980 became its literary editor. He wrote an arts diary for the newspaper the European and contributed to a short-lived cricket magazine backed by the then giant of the pitch, Imran Khan. And, when he could, he played – for a while he was a fast bowler for a local Pakistani side called Pak Mersey.

His marriage to Gillian came to an end in 1975, and for some years Stan continued to care for his young sons, to live riotously, and to write memorably about doing both. His son Alexander remembers the parties at their Liverpool home and “routinely stepping over drunk, passed-out corpses on the way to school in the morning”. He also remembers the time the actor Bill Nighy “left the house with dad’s prized Moss Bros overcoat”.

Gillian later gained custody of their sons. Stan gave up drinking in 1984, and smoking in 2003. He and Jane McLoughlin, a former editor of the Guardian women’s page, moved to west Somerset, near the Quantock Hills, in 1991, and married in 2004.

Death Dyed Blonde (2008) was followed by more crime novels, set in a New England town very like Holyoke: “I wanted to create a world which was a bit of Eden except for the odd corpse showing up,” he wrote. He also wrote: “I supported three sons and several bartenders writing this sort of stuff I now give away free in these blogs.”

In 2003, he had a heart attack, with 127 cardiac arrests in one episode. “Not a record, the doctor said, but in the top 10,” Jane reported. Though more or less immobilised, he continued to write for the Guardian, with obituaries of the comic novelist Tom Sharpe, the crime writers Ruth Rendell and PD James, and George MacDonald Fraser, begetter of the Flashman novels.

Stan is survived by Jane and his sons, Ambrose, Alexander and Abel, from his marriage to Gillian.

Stanley Ambrose Reynolds, journalist and author, born 27 November 1934; died 28 November 2016