"A Little About Jack Higgins: A Life in Writing"
A Little About Jack Higgins: A Life in Writing
by Ben Boulden
Higgins is a familiar name to most readers. His thrillers have routinely
appeared on international bestseller lists since his breakout novel, The
Eagle Has Landed, was published in 1975. A book that has been printed more
than 50 million times. But Jack Higgins, whose real name is Harry Patterson,
wrote 35 novels before The Eagle Has Landed made him a household
name, and many of those early novels, especially those published between East
of Desolation (the first book with the name Jack Higgins attached)
in 1968 and The Run to Morning in 1974, are quite good. At their best, a
Jack Higgins novel is linear, well-plotted, exciting, and with a style that is
lyrical, and characters that are wonderfully romantic. At their worst, they are
bland and lifeless. Higgins’ weakest novels, on average, are those published after
1990, which is about the same time his character Sean Dillon appeared on the
scene. Many, but certainly not all, of the Sean Dillon books are weighted by interchangeable
plots, characters that are more caricature than realistic, and a stark style that,
at its worst, sinks into dullness.
It was, however, Sean Dillon that reinvented the Jack Higgins brand. Before the diminutive former IRA assassin hit the scene in the 1992 novel, Eye of the Storm, each successive Higgins’ book spent fewer weeks on the bestseller lists than its predecessor had. But those first fifteen or so Sean Dillon novels were smashing commercial successes. The reading public discovered Higgins’ recipe for adventure all over again. His American publisher, Berkley, reissued several of his older, and often hard to find, early titles as paperback originals (which is an excellent reason to like Sean Dillon). But things may not have turned out that way if Eye of the Storm had been published as Higgins initially wrote it. Dillon was cast as the villain and he perished in the first draft, but Higgins’ wife prompted him to keep Dillon alive and bring him back for an encore performance. Higgins listened, and Sean Dillon has scampered his way through 22 bestselling adventures.
words about the author’s life are imperative, and we will stick to Higgins’
given name: Harry Patterson. Patterson was born on July 29, 1929, in Newcastle-on-Tyne,
England, as Henry, but he has always been called Harry. His father,
also named Henry, was a Scotsman and worked as a shipwright. His mother,
Henrietta Higgins, was Irish. Patterson was an only child. His parents divorced
when he was two: “my mother, who had married very young, decided she had made a
mistake in marrying at all.” At the age of four, Henrietta took young Harry to
live in a protestant section of Belfast, Ireland, where he was raised by his
mother’s family. Belfast’s violence touched Patterson’s boyhood, which he spoke
about in an interview with the Sunday Daily Mail:
“I soon learned to second-guess whether a potential attacker was a Catholic or Protestant and act accordingly. If I guessed that they were Catholic, I’d cross myself in the vain attempt of warding them off, but I invariably got it wrong and would end up being beaten and having my money stolen. It was a very violent upbringing yet, strangely, I don’t recall ever feeling particularly scared.”
learned to read at the age three. In an interview with the Daily Mail he
said: “My grandfather was bed-ridden and [I] was made to read him the Christian
Herald every day: by night [I] would crouch near the window to read by the
gaslight of the street lamps.”
The young Harry Patterson read everything he could get his hands on. He read Dickens’ Oliver Twist when he was six: “Not because it was a classic, but because it was a book that was available.” He still reads Dickens, but his favorite novel—at least in 1998—is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Patterson’s most famous alter-ego, Jack Higgins, came from his time in Belfast, too. His maternal uncle— “who was very much involved in Orange politics” —was called Jack. “Orange politics” refers to the protestant’s end of the argument during Northern Ireland’s troubles that burned so hot in the 20th century.
When Patterson was 13, he moved with his mother and her new husband to Leeds, in West Yorkshire, England. As Patterson explained in a Sunday Daily Mail interview, his stepfather, a man named Thompson, was struggling financially:
“[W]e had to live in a tiny back-to-back house with no bathroom and do the ‘necessaries’, as we called them, out in the yard.”
Patterson never got along with his stepfather: “He was incredibly jealous of the relationship I had with my mum.” He struggled in school and the Irish accent he had picked up in Belfast made him an outsider. Patterson left school for good at 15, and his stepfather made it clear that he would never amount to anything. After he left school, Patterson’s stepfather forced him to accept a job “as a messenger-boy for the Leeds City Cleansing Department” and to take a correspondence course to complete his schooling.
“Although he was a real tyrant with me, allowing me out just one night a week, I passed that course and got myself quite a decent qualification. He did me a real favor in the end.”
Patterson took his stepfather to the premiere of the film based on The Eagle Has Landed— “in a gleaming brand new Porsche” —hoping to impress him:
“I thought to myself beforehand that he would really be proud of me and the film. Instead, he simply turned to me afterwards and said: ‘It must be rotten when they do that to your work.’”
did his National Service with the East Yorkshires. He was
stationed near the East German border in the early-1950s. When he returned to
Leeds after leaving the service, Patterson worked various jobs, “from being a
tent hand in the circus to selling cigarettes from a corner shop” and basically
struggled with life. He credits his story-writing with keeping him “going
throughout [his] teens and early adult years.” He returned to school in his
late-twenties and earned a certificate in education from Beckett Park College
for Teachers in 1958. His first teaching post was “at a spanking new
comprehensive school in Leeds called Allerton Grange.” His first published
novel, A Sad Wind from the Sea, followed a year later. Patterson earned
a Bachelor of Science from the London School of Economics and Political
Science in 1962. He took a position as a lecturer of liberal studies at Leeds
College of Commerce in 1964, and in 1968 he moved on to James Graham College. Patterson
enjoyed teaching, he loved his students, but his dream was to write.
Patterson’s dream of a writing life came closer when his 1966 novel, A Candle for the Dead, was made into the film, The Violent Enemy. This sale allowed him to pay off his mortgage and write fulltime. Patterson gave himself two years to find enough success to support his family. When MGM produced a film based on his 1971 novel, The Wrath of God, with Robert Mitchum as the lead, his dream was enchantingly close. Then, of course, a few years later the outlandish success of The Eagle Has Landed gave Patterson as much time as he needed to write, which he has done well, authoring 76 novels across 57 years using five different names. Harry Patterson, Martin Fallon, Hugh Marlowe, Jack Higgins, and James Graham.
thing that seems to slow Harry Patterson’s literary output is health and age. In
the late-1990s, when Patterson was at the tail end of his sixties, he developed
a hereditary neurological disorder called Essential Tremor Syndrome. The
disorder made it impossible for Patterson to use his typewriter because he was
unable to “tap the right keys.” He switched to writing “on student pads with
fibre pens” and while he once wrote three novels in a year, he felt lucky to finish
In an interview with The Guardian, Patterson detailed how close Essential Tremor Syndrome came to taking his ability to write at all:
“I couldn’t fasten my buttons, I couldn’t write. Everything went to pieces. I tried to control the shaking by taking pills and drinking champagne, but that didn’t work. Then I tried stopping drink, and that didn’t work either, so I called my publisher in the US to let him know my writing days were over.”
But then things changed again in 2006, when Patterson “had a seizure while watching TV” and he hit his head on the floor. As he said in the same interview, when he first had the seizure, things were scary:
“I kept saying ‘It’s 1917’, but I’ve no idea what was going on in my head. [T]he ambulance came and for a while my family thought I might die, but once I was through the worst…. I found that my shakes had improved enough for me to start writing again.”
Since that seizure Patterson has published 13 books, including four young adult novels co-written with Justin Richards.
Harry Patterson died April 9, 2022, at his home on the Isle of Jersey, overlooking St. Aubin’s Bay, in the Channel Islands. His last novel, The Midnight Bell, was published in 2016.
“A Little About Jack Higgins: A Life in Writing”
first appeared in Vintage Lists Presents The Complete Jack Higgins: Books.
Movies. Characters. [Vintage Lists, 2021].
Copyright © 2021 by Ben Boulden / All Rights Reserved