Details of Robert Clay's genealogy and life are not easy to discern, but he was born Robert Henry Keating Clay, the son of Robert Keating Clay (1835-1904), a Dublin solicitor (in turn the son of another Dublin solicitor, William Keating Clay, who died in 1894), and his wife, Florence Elizabeth Casey (d. 1897; her middle name appears in some records as Bessy or Bridget), who were married in Monkstown in south Dublin on 29 July 1862. Robert Clay was probably the youngest child of the marriage (he had six older sisters and one older brother). The recipient at probate of his father's estate on his death in 1904 was Robert's (eldest?) sister Dorothy May (Clay) Gordon; she was married to John Gordon (1849-1922), an Irish lawyer and politician who was the Member of Parliament for South Londonderry (a Parliamentary constituency that was abolished in 1922) from 1900-1916.
Little is certain about Robert Clay's education and life, but in censuses and in various government documents he listed himself as a lawyer or a writer. By 1911 he was married to Alice Louise Clay (whose occupation was sometimes given as physician), and living in Dublin. He and Alice apparently did not have any children, and Alice, who was very close in age to Robert, may have lived into the 1950s.
Robert served in the Royal Army Service Corps in World War I. After the war, he and his wife were based for a short time in Stroud, Gloucestershire, though they traveled to New York and to western Canada. By the early-1920s they had settled in West Vancouver, British Columbia, and later in Sooke, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, where Robert and Alice were known to be living as late as in 1949. The next reference point for Robert is his death in Fiji in 1965.
Robert Clay's writing career seems confined to the 1920s. As a byline he seems always to have used "Robert Clay," but in personal life he and his wife often used the surname "Keating-Clay." His first known story. "The Man Who Hated Worms," appeared in The Black Mask for April 1, 1923. Three other short stories are known: "The Voice and Simon Eld" appeared in Young's Realistic Stories Magazine, September 1923; "The House without a Mirror" in Hutchinson's Magazine, June 1924; and "Ordeal" in Hutchinson's Adventure-Story Magazine, January 1927.
His first novel, A Chequer-Board, was serialized in seven parts in Blackwood's Magazine from November 1925 through May 1926. It is a romance of pirates, in the manner of Rafael Sabatini. It appeared in book-form from William Blackwood and Sons (Edinburgh) in November 1926; with a US edition from J.B. Lippincott in 1927. An undated reprint by A.L. Burt, retitled The Romance of a Pirate, probably came out in 1928.
|The Lippincott 1927 dust-wrapper|
Clay's second novel, By Night (Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, [March] 1927; Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, [August] 1927), is sometimes describes as a horror thriller, but it is not supernatural. Here Neil Gascoigne inherits from his uncle the home where he grew up. His ownership is complicated in that he is forced to keep employing the mysterious Japanese gardener Kito, and he must keep residence for a fixed period. The latter isn't a problem, for renting a house on the estate is the family he was close with as a youth. It includes sensible Jean Raeburn, who provides the love interest of the story. But there are hints of a haunting, and a motorcylist is found dead, possibly murdered, and soon afterwards a tramp is definitely murdered. Some guests see a horrific monster and are convinced of its supernatural nature. The story plods on—it is only moderately engaging—until in a fell swoop the solution is revealed. The mad uncle had faked his death and made (literally) a horrific black rubber suit for no other purpose than to randomly kill and terrorize. Thus the denouement is preposterously silly and unsatisfying. Yet the book is collectible for its very attractive dust-wrapper illustration.
Clay's third and final novel, Carmen Sheila, came out from the same publishers in the UK (October 1928) and the US (January 1929). It is set in a small South American republic where Carmen Shiela, along with some close friends, have gone to search for her beloved brother.