Jack Higgins: “Featuring international spies, assassins and other colorful protagonists, including gorgeous women, his novels have sold 250 million copies”

From a New York Times obit by David Stout headlined “Jack Higgins, Author of ‘The Eagle Has Landed,’ Dies at 92”:

Jack Higgins, the author of dozens of best-selling adventure novels, most notably “The Eagle Has Landed,” a hugely popular tale about a band of German commandos who infiltrate Britain to try to kidnap Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II, died at his home on the English Channel island of Jersey….

Featuring Irish gunmen, international spies and assassins, smugglers and other colorful protagonists, including gorgeous women, Mr. Higgins’s novels have sold an estimated 250 million copies worldwide.

From 1959, when his first book was published, until the mid-1970s, he gradually built a fan base and earned the respect of some critics with his potboilers.

“Higgins has a good ear for dialogue, handles his love scenes without mawkishness and is well up on Mediterranean politics,” Newgate Callendar wrote in The New York Times after “Night Judgment at Sinos,” about an attempt to free a prisoner from an island penitentiary, was published in 1970.

Soon afterward, Mr. Higgins found an inspiration for the book that would vault him into the stratosphere of commercially successful writers.

“Everyone I dealt with in publishing thought it was a bad idea,” the author reminisced in a 1987 interview. He recalled what a British publishing executive told him: “Who on earth is going to be interested in a bunch of Germans kidnapping Winston Churchill? You’ve got no heroes. The public will never go for it.”

The public went for it. “The Eagle Has Landed” has sold more than 50 million copies since it was first published in 1975. Like several other Higgins novels, it was adapted for a movie, which starred Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland and Robert Duvall.

Under various pseudonyms, Mr. Higgins wrote the kind of stories easily — some would say too easily — dismissed by tweedy English professors. But they offered readers an escape from everyday life.

The stories were also an escape for the author, a way of “creating a different world for myself,” as he put it in a 2000 interview.

And there were times, especially early in his life, when the writer must have yearned for a different world.

Jack Higgins, James Graham, Martin Fallon and Hugh Marlowe were all pseudonyms for Henry Patterson, who was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in the north of England to a shipwright, Henry Patterson, and his wife, Henrietta.

The parents’ marriage soon failed, and the mother took her toddler son to her native Belfast, in Northern Ireland, and became a waitress. The child, who had been baptized as a Presbyterian but had Catholic relatives, was occasionally beaten up in the streets by hoodlums on both sides of the religious divide. On one occasion, a streetcar he was riding in came under rifle fire from Catholic militants.

Later, when his mother moved to Yorkshire, England, and remarried, he endured the disdain of his stepfather. “He always resented me, that I was part of the deal,” he said in the 2000 interview with the Belfast newspaper. “I remember him saying to me, ‘You’ll never amount to much, you’re useless.’”

The boy was a poor student and was once given nine strokes on the backside for throwing snowballs at the school clock. At 15, he fled the boredom of the classroom. After a series of menial jobs, he joined the British Army, where he discovered that he could shoot a rifle very accurately (with the aid of eyeglasses) and that he was actually very intelligent. Tests put his I.Q. at 147, which is considered highly gifted.

“The army gave me a sense of what I was capable of,” he said years later.

He left the army and bounced from job to job — clerk, circus tent handler, streetcar conductor, truck driver, factory worker, cigarette salesman — before deciding he should settle down.

“I bumped into a friend of mine in the park, and he said he was going to be a teacher,” Mr. Higgins said in 2001. “That made me think that maybe I could be one, too.”

So he entered Leeds Training College, working in a post office at night to pay for his tuition, and earned a teaching certificate in 1958. Late that year, he married Amy Hewitt, a college student.

The next year, his first novel, “Sad Wind From the Sea,” an adventure set in China, was published under the name of Harry Patterson. It had modest sales.

By then, the one-time failure in the classroom had matured intellectually. He taught high school history in Leeds, England. He earned a degree in social psychology and sociology from the University of London in 1962 and, for the next decade, he was a teacher and tutor at several colleges.

The modest success of his early works convinced him that he had to write a lot of books if he were to make a decent living as an author, and that he should probably use various names.

In the 1960s, the first Jack Higgins novels were published. (The author chose the pseudonym after a great-uncle who had been a gunman with Protestant militants in Belfast.)

Mr. Higgins was stung as academic colleagues poked fun at his thrillers. So he wrote a “serious” novel, “A Phoenix in the Blood,” about racial prejudice in Britain.

When the book was published by Barrie & Rockliff of Britain in 1964, it received “terribly good reviews” from the highbrows who would look down on his later work, Mr. Higgins recalled. But it sold only 1,600 copies.

Not content to be respected by professors but ignored by the Everyman, he went back to writing thrillers, generally working with pen and tablet. After the spectacular success of “The Eagle Has Landed,” Mr. Higgins became a resident of Jersey, which is a British island but not part of the United Kingdom, to escape high income taxes in Britain.

His first marriage ended in 1984, and he blamed the breakup, at least in part, on his fame. “Once you set out on the voyage of success, others have no choice in the matter. Everything’s changing, and they’re being dragged along — the wife, the children,” he said in 1987. “Suddenly you’re not the same person.”

Mr. Higgins sometimes noted wryly that while his opinions on literary matters were often sought while he was a teacher, they were less in demand after he became a wealthy writer. But he had a sense of his own worth.

“I’m not pretending I’m Charles Dickens or anything,” he said in the 2000 interview with the Belfast newspaper. “But whatever I do, whatever it is that makes up a ‘Jack Higgins’ book, it’s not like what anyone else does.”

David Stout, a reporter and editor at The New York Times for 28 years, died in 2020. Alex Traub contributed reporting.
Also see the Washington Post obit by Phil Davison headlined “Jack Higgins, best-selling author of ‘The Eagle Has Landed,’ dies at 92.” The opening grafs:

Jack Higgins, a British thriller writer whose 85 books sold more than a quarter of a billion copies and who had his greatest international success with ″The Eagle Has Landed,” a novel about a fictional Nazi plot to kidnap or assassinate British wartime leader Winston Churchill, died at his home in Jersey, one of the British Channel Islands between England and France…..

A former soldier turned teacher, Mr. Higgins began writing in the evenings under his birth name and over the years used Hugh Marlowe, Martin Fallon and James Graham because he churned out so many novels so fast that no one publisher could print them all in any given year.

“The Eagle Has Landed,” published in 1975, made Jack Higgins a global commodity (Higgins was his mother’s maiden name). One would be hard-pressed to find an airport bookshop anywhere in the world, even in non-English-speaking countries, that doesn’t display a Higgins novel on its shelves. In a statement, Redmayne said that Mr. Higgins was known around the publishing house as “The Legend.”

For all its adventurism, “The Eagle Has Landed” also demonstrated Mr. Higgins’s ability to remind his readers of moral complexity and cast doubt on who are heroes or villains in individual circumstance — in this case, war.

The book is set in September 1943 when Germany’s war effort, including Hitler’s original intention of invading Britain, is faltering. A group of disguised German paratroopers, aided by an anti-British sympathizer from the Irish Republican Army (IRA), is tasked with trying to kidnap or kill Churchill during his visit to a village in eastern England.

When Mr. Higgins wrote his first draft, he said an executive at Collins Publishers was first confused by the title (“he said it sounded like a bird book”). The executive then grew hesitant because the plot seemed too sympathetic toward the German protagonists, showing them as honorable men on a mission they considered justified, and also glorifying the IRA’s anti-British stand. The author, raised for part of his youth amid the sectarian conflicts of Northern Ireland, was keen on exploring the moral and psychological ambiguity of his characters.

But his editor at the time said he viewed it as an “instant classic” and was fully validated after Holt, Rinehart and Winston brought it out in the United States to resounding commercial success. “The Americans had to reprint it once a month for a year to meet demand,” he told Reuters.

“The Eagle Has Landed” went on to sell 50 million books in more than 50 languages and was turned into a 1976 movie starring Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall and Jenny Agutter….

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