Jack Higgins obituary

<span>Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Under his own and several other names, including Jack Higgins, Harry Patterson had published 35 thrillers before, in his mid-40s, he hit the jackpot with The Eagle Has Landed (1975), an instant bestseller in the US, which is said to have sold more than 50m copies worldwide.

Its success carried Higgins, who has died aged 92, into tax exile in Jersey, to a mansion overlooking St Aubin’s Bay, from where he was to write a popular thriller almost annually, his books guaranteed to find a place in every airport departure lounge in the world.

With commercial popularity came the opprobrium of the literary critics: accusations of poor writing and the recycling of characters and plots from earlier books. The New York Times said that his bestseller Night of the Fox (1986) had “a plot which thickens to the point of congealing” and one critic described Thunder Point (1993) as “the finest book about drinking ever seen”, noting that references to drinking champagne outnumbered Scotch by 39 to 16.

Patterson, who claimed to have been advised by his fellow author Alistair MacLean never to read reviews, rarely responded publicly to his critics and was quite open about his “recycling” when it became clear that On Dangerous Ground (1994) was a reworking of his earlier thriller Midnight Never Comes (1966). He certainly had no qualms about reusing names, with characters called Hugh Kelso, Harry Kelso, Max Kelso and even (twice) Martin Fallon, which then became one of his pen names, along with Hugh Marlowe, James Graham and, from 1968, Jack Higgins.

The lack of “literary” recognition probably did hurt, as did the lukewarm reviews for the dozen or so films made from his books (he was a great film buff and from 1993 patron of the Jersey Film Society), plus the fact that he was never in contention, within the genre, for an award from the Crime Writers’ Association.

Yet Patterson had an undeniable talent for spotting a popular story and was particularly quick off the mark with Exocet (1983), in the wake of the Falklands war, and Eye of the Storm (1992), following a mortar attack on John Major’s cabinet. Above all, he created a series of flawed heroes who were “good guys fighting for rotten causes”, notably Steiner, the “good German” in The Eagle Has Landed, and Liam Devlin and Sean Dillon, who both had backgrounds as IRA gunmen.

This latter trait caused some concern among his editors at William Collins, the publisher he joined in 1971, as did his plot outline for The Eagle Has Landed. Patterson was told: “Nazis trying to kill Churchill? Where are your heroes?” The book came out in the US first, and was an instant hit, vindicating Patterson’s faith in the idea, and he later said: “It taught me one thing. Never, never listen to publishers.”

The Eagle Has Landed established the Jack Higgins brand name worldwide and Patterson rarely used his other writing identities subsequently. In the year following publication, the book was filmed by the veteran action director John Sturges, with an all-star cast headed by Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence and Donald Sutherland.

His next book, Storm Warning, also based on a second world war story, was a bestseller in 1976 and a film version was, reputedly, three weeks away from principal photography when cancelled. Patterson claimed he never knew the reason why, but “made a lot of money” out of the project nonetheless.

Faced with a super-tax regime in the UK, Patterson fled into exile on Jersey. He always wrote longhand and his writing regime was said to start each evening in his favourite Italian restaurant in St Helier, then continue at home through the night before a glass of champagne and bacon-and-eggs breakfast at dawn, then bed. In 2003, the BBC reported his annual earnings at £2.8m.

The story of Patterson’s life had a rags-to-riches ring to it which would not have been out of place in his fiction. Son of Henry Patterson and Rita Higgins Bell, he was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, but by the time he was two, his parents had split up and his mother moved to Belfast, where young Harry was brought up by his extended family. He attended Nettlefield primary school (as did the future footballer George Best some 20 years later) and claimed to have witnessed his first sectarian bombing at age six. He was ever thankful for the public libraries in Belfast and became an enthusiastic and fluent reader.

When barely a teenager, Patterson was moved to wartime Leeds, where his mother remarried and worked as a waitress. He described himself as coming from “a poor background – very working class” but did apply himself enough to win a scholarship to Roundhay grammar school, a classic escape route to advancement which he failed to take. Beaten by the headteacher for throwing a snowball at the school clock, Patterson was told, “You’ll never amount to anything”, a judgment he was often to recall with pride, especially when awarded an honorary doctorate by Leeds Metropolitan University in 1995.

H e served in the Household Cavalry for his national service (1947-50), attaining the rank of corporal and a posting to guard duty on the East German border. He also, thanks to army testing, discovered he had an IQ of 147 and the realisation spurred him to return to education once back in civilian life. Supporting himself with a variety of jobs including tram conductor and circus hand and eventually finding his way into teaching, he filled his spare time writing short stories, plays and radio scripts all of which failed to attract publishers or payment.

Michael Caine in the 1976 film The Eagle Has Landed, directed by John Sturges.
Michael Caine in the 1976 film The Eagle Has Landed, directed by John Sturges. Photograph: TCD/Alamy

In the 1950s, he was accepted into Beckett Park teacher training college in Leeds and also enrolled for a “distance learning” BSc degree course in sociology from the London School of Economics. He was one of the two external candidates to sit the final exams in Bradford in 1961, in which he was awarded a third, making him one of the earliest graduates in the new subject of sociology in Britain.

Although married by now and starting a family, Patterson the qualified teacher seemed to enjoy the bohemian life of late 50s Leeds, befriending the young unknown actor Peter O’Toole and the recently published novelist John Braine. It was while Patterson was lecturing at Leeds Polytechnic that the literary agent Paul Scott finally found a publisher for his adventure thriller Sad Wind from the Sea, set in South China seas he had never seen, in 1959. Patterson was 29 and was paid an “awesome” £75 advance.

Thrillers, crime novels and spy stories flowed effortlessly under a clutch of pen-names, though many had print-runs only large enough to supply the demand from public libraries, but his fan base was growing, albeit in the shadow of other thriller writers such as MacLean, Hammond Innes and Geoffrey Jenkins. “I had done all right,” Patterson was to say, “but I hadn’t done brilliantly.”

The early 70s saw more attention to character in his writing, solid commercial success and even some glowing reviews. His war story A Game for Heroes, published in 1970 by Macmillan under the name James Graham, was set in the Channel Islands, a location he was to return to several times in fiction and, later, in life. It was well-enough received but it was his next two books back at Collins, as Jack Higgins, that were to make his name.

The Savage Day (1972) and A Prayer for the Dying (1973) were centred on the troubles in Northern Ireland and publication coincided with the release in 1972 of a film of an earlier book, The Wrath of God, starring Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth. Whatever Harry Patterson thought, Jack Higgins was starting to do brilliantly.

Despite initial scepticism from his British publisher, Patterson pressed ahead with his research for The Eagle Has Landed, the actual writing taking eight weeks. He is alleged to have threatened to take the book elsewhere when he discovered that Collins planned an initial hardback print run of “only” 8,000 copies. Published first in the US, it became (according to the author) a “publishing legend” and when it eventually appeared in Britain, it was to remain in the Top 10 bestseller lists for 36 weeks.

Twenty years later, in a preface to one of the many reprint editions, Patterson wrote: “I may also say it changed the face of the war novel.”

If he was never to achieve such heights for a single book again, Patterson had made the quantum leap into thriller superstardom and for the next 30 years the Jack Higgins brand name guaranteed commercial success, with total sales estimated at more than 250m copies. In an interview in 2014, he said: “I couldn’t see the point of writing books that didn’t make money.”

In addition to four novels for young adults, co-authored with Justin Richards, Patterson wrote more than 70 novels, and on the cover of later books, his publisher labelled him: “The Legend Jack Higgins”. His last published novel, the 22nd to feature Sean Dillon, was The Midnight Bell (2017). In 2021, a compendium edition of his trilogy of police detective stories from the 60s was published as Graveyard to Hell.

Patterson is survived by his second wife, Denise Palmer, a literary agent, whom he married in 1985; and by three daughters, Sarah, Ruth and Hannah, and a son, Sean, from his first marriage, to Amy Hewitt, which ended in divorce.

• Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson), thriller writer, born 27 July 1929; died 9 April 2022