* Spaniard signs 18-month contract
* Caretaker coach Downing to stay on (Adds background)
Jan 9 (Reuters) - Pepe Mel, the charismatic Spaniard who led Real Betis to seventh place in La Liga last season and writes mystery novels in his spare time, was named manager of English Premier League strugglers West Bromwich Albion on Thursday.
"(Mel) has signed an 18-month contract and takes over the reins from Keith Downing who took charge of the team in a caretaker capacity five games ago," the club said in a statement.
The 50-year-old, one of the most respected coaches in La Liga, will be supported by Downing and his number two Dean Kiely who will remain with the club as assistant coach and goalkeeping coach respectively.
Downing took charge after Scot Steve Clarke was sacked on Dec. 14 following a sequence of one victory in 10 league games.
"I'm delighted to welcome Pepe to the club," said Albion's sporting and technical director Richard Garlick.
"His appointment concludes an extensive recruitment process during which we have cast the net far and wide to identify the most suitable candidate to take the club forward.
"Pepe was a strong contender from the outset due to his impressive achievements and emerged as our number one candidate," said Garlick.
"He is a forward-thinking coach whose teams are renowned for playing an attractive and positive style of football."
The balding Mel arrives at West Brom with 14 years of coaching experience in Spanish football.
He led Betis into this season's Europa League but was sacked at the start of last month with the club bottom of La Liga.
Mel took charge at Betis in 2010 and helped them win promotion back to the top flight in his first season.
He has also had stints at Tenerife, Getafe and Rayo Vallecano and bade a tearful farewell at a news conference after Betis announced his exit.
Mel has an unusual way of winding down from the demands of top-notch football.
"What I most love about writing novels is the process of preparing for it," he once said.
"It helps me relax and between pages I might think of a way to stop (Real Madrid forward) Cristiano Ronaldo."
Albion said Downing would remain in charge for Saturday's league game at Southampton while Mel observes his new team from the stands.
Mel's first game at the helm will be the home match with Everton on Jan. 20.
"The board is extremely grateful to Keith, the coaching staff and players for their efforts over the past month which have yielded six points from four unbeaten league games," said Garlick.
"Keith will have an important role to play in supporting Pepe as he coaches in England for the first time."
West Brom are 14th in the table, four points above the relegation zone. (Additional reporting by Iain Rogers in Madrid, writing by Tony Jimenez, editing by Pritha Sarkar)