Harry Patterson died on April 9. So did Hugh Marlowe, Martin Fallon, James Graham, and Jack Higgins. They were all pseudonyms Patterson used for his books, though, of course, Higgins was the most famous of them. From 1959 to 2016, Patterson wrote swift, dark thrillers featuring cynical antiheroes, ruthless villains, sudden violence, glorious set pieces, vivid settings, and the kind of dry black humor that can only be properly expressed by someone who has been there and done that.
“You’re big on moral philosophy, Dillon,” says a young man named Billy at the end of Dark Justice. “Do you believe everything’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds?”
“Billy, old son,” Dillon replies, “believe that and you’ll believe anything.”
Patterson himself had been there and done that. A soldier, factory worker, circus roustabout, truck driver, and laborer before going to college and then becoming a teacher, his two most memorable characters were Liam Devlin, who was featured in Patterson’s most celebrated novel The Eagle Has Landed - among others - and the aforementioned Sean Dillon, the engine behind all of Patterson’s last 22 books. Both men were one-time IRA gunmen, now disillusioned, both filled with complexity, passion, deep wells of fatalism, and a profound sense of implacable justice. You crossed them at your peril.
I was lucky enough to be Harry’s editor for close to 20 years, up through his last book in 2016, The Midnight Bell. He wrote his books sitting at the window table of his favorite restaurant on the isle of Jersey, scrawling in longhand on a pad of lined paper. Then he sent the pages to a typist to make them into something legible for me to read. The books usually benefited from a little tightening, and when we began, I used to send two manuscripts back to him, a marked-up original and a clean, retyped version, so he could compare them as he liked, and restore or change whatever he wanted. After a few years, though, he told me I needn’t bother with the originals. The clean ones were fine, his changes were small, and eventually he told his agent to wait for my edited manuscripts before submitting them to any of his other publishers around the world: These were the ones he wanted to go out.
As the years went by, though, Harry’s health began to deteriorate. He developed tremors in his hands. It wasn’t Parkinson’s, but it was like Parkinson’s, and the tremors got worse, until, finally, he couldn’t hold a pen. His agent tried to persuade him to consider options such as dictating the books or installing voice recognition software, and I flew over to Jersey to see how he was feeling. We had a lovely, long lunch at the window table of that favorite restaurant, and talked about everything under the sun, but at the end, he said, with a sigh, no, it just didn’t feel right doing the books any other way. He was so sorry, but he guessed his writing days were over.
I flew back to New York, saddened. That was it, I thought.
And then one day, about 16 years ago, he was visiting a friend, and he tripped and fell down and hit his head very badly. When he came to, he was in the hospital, and, as he later put it to me, “I had a bloody awful headache – and the tremors were gone.” Just…gone. If the doctors knew why, I never heard about it. But Harry didn’t care why. As soon as he was well enough, he called for a nurse. Would you be so good, he said, as to bring me a pad of lined paper? When she did, he wrote at the top: Chapter One.
A few months later, the manuscript was on my desk. Others followed.
He loved what he did, and he was proud to be a member of the thriller community.
In 2009, I was in London to help him celebrate his 80th birthday. A roomful of his friends, family, and colleagues were there, and I’ll share what I told them then: Some people are good writers, I said, and some writers are good people. But when you have both in the same person, that’s a treasure you hold onto.
Harry Patterson was a treasure. I will always hold onto him.
Neil Nyren retired at the end of 2017 as executive v-p, associate publisher, and editor in chief of G.P. Putnam’s Sons.