Richard Leigh, writer: born 16 August 1943; died London 21 November 2007
The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail is one of the most successful and controversial non-fiction books of recent times, having sold more than two million copies since its publication in 1982. Written by Richard Leigh, Michael Baigent and Henry Lincoln, it tells the story of secret documents found during the late 19th century by Bérenger Saunière, a country priest at Rennes-le-Château, who subsequently became extremely wealthy. The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail – and its 1986 sequel, The Messianic Legacy – advanced the theory that Jesus did not die on the cross but instead went on to marry Mary Magdalene, have children and live in southern France. This knowledge, both books propose, was carried down the centuries by a secret society known as the Priory of Sion. Anthony Burgess, reviewing the book in The Observer in 1982, remarked: "It will seem to some a crackpot exercise, but these young men are no fools; they have learning, energy and enthusiasm tempered by scepticism."
Richard Leigh was born in New Jersey in 1943 to a British father and Austrian mother. After studying at Tufts University in Boston and the University of Chicago, he obtained his doctorate from Stony Brook University, New York. He arrived in London in 1974 having originally intended to write literary fiction. Instead, he encountered the Rennes-le-Château material for the first time and met Michael Baigent.
Over the next two decades the pair, with Baigent as researcher and Leigh as writer – and on two books with Henry Lincoln – brought out a group of non-fiction works, all of which threw new light on conventional history and the development of ideas, whilst at the same time stirring controversy. It is largely thanks to Leigh and Baigent that "alternative history" writing is still so successful to this day. They were, however, sensitive to criticism of the genre by the establishment, whose opinions the books would contradict, observing that: "However silly, however gullible, however credulous the 'New Age seeker' may often be, the very process of 'seeking' at least attests to something positive, something laudable."
For example, The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception (1991) examined the concealment of the scrolls by the Catholic Church and argued that they had been written by zealots who were close to Jesus. This view contrasted with the conventional orthodoxy that the scrolls had been created by some minor Jewish apocalyptic group.
The Temple and the Lodge (1991) looked at the history of freemasonry, from the Templars onwards, and its role in the creation of modern Europe and the United States. Secret Germany (1994) revealed a previously little-known plot to kill Hitler.
Their penultimate work of this genre, The Elixir and the Stone (1997), is a historical tour de force which traces the role of hermeticism in the development of modern philosophy. Finally, The Inquisition (1999) picked up again on the Catholic Church.
Almost 25 years after the release of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, the book was back in the news when Leigh and Baigent sued Random House for alleged plagiarism in Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code. The book had used the themes of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the Priory of Sion, while Brown named one of his characters Sir Leigh Teabing (an anagram of Baigent) in what seems to be a nod to the authors.
After what Leigh described as a "very time-consuming and bitter battle", the 2006 court verdict established that there was "no copyright infringement". The case, and a subsequent unsuccessful appeal earlier this year, left the pair with a bill for an estimated £3m in legal fees.
In recent years Richard Leigh had returned to his true passion, literary fiction. His Erceldoune & Other Stories (2006) contains two novellas and a short story as well as "Mythic Logic", an insightful and balanced essay describing the role of tribal and poetic myth on both sides of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. His conclusion to the piece urges the creation of new myths which can help "shape the thinking and identity" of Northern Ireland, arguing that, without these, people will only search for an unattainable "political solution".
Leigh's last published novel was Grey Magic, which appeared this summer. This semi-autographical work sees the protagonist leaving America in his early thirties to settle in Britain.
Whilst the non-fiction books generally presented their material in a serious vein, Leigh would allow his clever humour to show in subtle ways. Each of the books carried a dedication to Jehan l'Ascuiz, a mythical Occitan bard. Similarly, Leigh's official biographical information is intended to make us howl, in describing him as a member of the "Vancouver Foundation for Lycanthropic Children".