Jack Higgins, the ‘useless’ Belfast schoolboy who went on to write The Eagle Has Landed, dies at 92

The adventure novelist sold 250 million books. A number of his works have Irish themes

Henry Patterson, also known as Jack Higgins, wrote 85 books during his long career. Photograph: HarperCollins Publishers/PA Wire

Jack Higgins, the author of dozens of bestselling 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 the second World War, died Saturday at his home on the English Channel island of Jersey. He was 92.

His death was announced on Twitter by the British division of HarperCollins, which did not specify the cause. Featuring Irish gunmen, international spies and assassins, smugglers and other colourful protagonists, including gorgeous women, Higgins’ novels have sold an estimated 250 million copies worldwide and have been translated into about 55 languages.

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 by Hodder & Stoughton of Britain in 1970.

Soon afterward 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 with United Press International. 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."


A young Higgins, who had been baptised as a Presbyterian but had Catholic relatives, was occasionally beaten up in the streets by hoodlums on both sides of the religious divide

The public went for it. The Eagle Has Landed has sold more than 50 million copies, by some estimates, since it was first published in 1975 by Collins of London and Holt, Rinehart and Winston in the United States. Like several other Higgins novels, it was adapted for a movie, which starred Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland and Robert Duvall.

Under various pseudonyms, 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 with The Belfast Telegraph. 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 on July 27th, 1929, in Newcastle upon Tyne in northern England to a shipwright, Henry Patterson, and his wife, Henrietta. (Father and son both went by Harry.)

The parents’ marriage soon failed, and the mother took her toddler son to her native Belfast and became a waitress. The child, who had been baptised 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 by Catholic militants.

Later when his mother moved to Yorkshire 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 author chose the pseudonym, Jack Higgins, after a great-uncle who had been a gunman with Protestant militants in Belfast

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 glasses) and that he was actually very intelligent. Tests put his IQ 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," Higgins told The Evening Standard 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.)

'Whatever it is that makes up a 'Jack Higgins' book, it's not like what anyone else does'

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, 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. A number of his books had Irish themes, including The Savage Day and The Eye of the Storm.

After the spectacular success of The Eagle Has Landed, Higgins became a resident of Jersey 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 the 1987 interview with UPI. “Suddenly you’re not the same person.”

Survivors include his second wife, Denise; a son, Sean; and three daughters, Sarah, Ruth and Hannah from his first marriage.

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 Telegraph. "But whatever I do, whatever it is that makes up a 'Jack Higgins' book, it's not like what anyone else does." – This article originally appeared in The New York Times