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In Memoriam

A tribute to five pop fiction writers we lost in 2022.

· 12 min read
In Memoriam
Top left: Jack Higgins, top centre: Susie Steiner, top right: Robert Goolrick, bottom left: John Jay Osborn Jr., bottom right: Nicholas Evans.

Death ended the careers of some very prominent literary men and women in the Anglophone world this year: Hilary Mantel, a two-time Booker Prize winner; David McCullough, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner; Roger Angell, a legendary editor and writer who was associated with the New Yorker magazine for an astounding 78 years—these and several other serious literary writers died in 2022 and got a full measure of attention from the mainstream press.

Alas, as usual, the pop-fiction writers who died in 2022 received routine obituaries but very little of the fanfare that accompanies the passing of those who have won some of world literature’s most prestigious awards. I’d like to take this opportunity to mention five of the more interesting pop-fiction authors who left us in 2022.

Henry “Harry” Patterson aka Jack Higgins

Harry Patterson wrote 85 novels under a variety of pseudonyms. His best-known works were published under the name “Jack Higgins,” including The Eagle Has Landed, the sixth bestselling novel in America in 1975. Prior to that, he had written 34 books without producing a single blockbuster hit. His mid-career rise seems to have been inspired, in part, by the works of Frederick Forsyth.

In 1964, as Harry Patterson, he had published Wrath of the Lion, a novel about a rightwing French paramilitary group that is hoping to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle. The book didn’t create much of a stir. Seven years later, The Day of the Jackal, Forsyth’s novel about a fictional attempt on the life of de Gaulle, became a publishing phenomenon and America’s fourth bestselling novel in 1971 and 1972. Forsyth’s book succeeded where Patterson’s failed because of the immense amount of realistic detail Forsyth brought to the story and because he managed to create suspense about the outcome of an event that every educated person knew hadn’t happened.

In Wrath of the Lion, Patterson downplayed the assassination effort, perhaps because he figured no reader could be made to worry about something that never occurred. Instead, he focused on a cat-and-mouse game between British intelligence agents and a rogue French submarine commander. Patterson must have seethed when he saw Forsyth hitting the bestseller list with a story similar to his. So, he went to work on a novel about a Nazi effort to kidnap Winston Churchill while the Prime Minister spends a weekend at a country house on the Norfolk coast in 1944. This time, he didn’t worry about the fact that almost everyone who read the book would know that Churchill was never kidnapped by Nazis.

In contemporary parlance, Patterson decided to “own” the concept and make it as real and as detailed as a Forsyth novel. He borrowed a few of Forsyth’s other favorite devices, too, including the incorporation of fictional documents into his text. Patterson seems to have felt that, having borrowed his de Gaulle assassination plot for Jackal, Forsyth owed him a few favors. In any case, it worked. By the end of the 1970s, the name “Jack Higgins” was as big as Frederick Forsyth among thriller lovers. Henry Patterson died on April 9th at the age of 92.

Nicholas Evans

Nicholas Evans was a late-blooming literary star. His first novel, The Horse Whisperer, was published in 1995, when the author was already 45. After struggling financially for much of his adult life, Evans, a Brit, made a name for himself with novels that mostly explored the American West. The Horse Whisperer told the story of a man with the power to communicate with horses. It was more than just the 10th bestselling novel of 1995; it was a phenomenon. In the same way that the Watergate scandal has been evoked in the name of nearly every subsequent American political scandal—Iran-Contragate, Troopergate, Russiagate, etc.—The Horse Whisperer is now evoked in all sorts of other contexts, giving us dog whisperers, cat whisperers, vote whisperers, judge whisperers, and countless others.

The term has existed for centuries but was mostly unknown outside equine circles until Evans popularized it. His book went on to sell over 15 million copies, making it one of the bestselling novels of all time. In 1998, it became a hit film, directed by and starring Robert Redford. That kind of success might have caused a lesser writer to freeze up, but not Evans. His second novel, The Loop, became the 14th bestselling novel of 1998. The Loop resembles the hit TV series Yellowstone, which debuted 20 years later.

The story revolves around a wealthy and politically connected Montana cattle rancher named Buck Calder. Calder and the less-wealthy ranchers who look to him for leadership are outraged by the federal government project that has reintroduced wild wolves to the Montana wilderness. Calder is convinced that the wolves present an existential threat to his cattle operation and he sets out to kill them all unlawfully. The book’s hero is Helen Ross, a 29-year-old wildlife biologist who is determined to see the wolves successfully reintegrated into the ecosystem. When she strikes up a romantic relationship with Buck Calder’s teenage son, she becomes Calder’s mortal enemy.

The Brave, Evans’s final novel, might well have been an inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood. Two of the main characters in The Brave are Ray, the washed up star of a 1950s TV Western, and Cal, his stunt double who also happens to be a better man than Ray in just about every way. The two main characters in Tarantino’s film are Rick, the washed up star of a 1950s TV Western, and Cliff, his stunt double who also happens to be a better man than Rick in just about every way. In both stories, the washed up actor marries a European actress much younger than he is.

Ironically, considering how much Evans knew and cared about the natural world, he nearly killed himself and several of his family members in September 2008 when he served them all the Deadly Webcap mushrooms he had harvested in the Scottish countryside after mistaking them for an edible variety. Evans and his wife, singer-songwriter Charlotte Gordon Cumming, had to undergo years of near-daily kidney dialysis until they could receive kidney transplants (Evans’s came from his daughter). The only novel Evans published after that near-death experience was The Brave in 2010, which he had started much earlier. The mushroom incident seems to have brought an end to his career as a novelist and probably shortened his life. Nicholas Evans died on August 9th at the age of 72.

John Jay Osborn Jr.

John Jay Osborn Jr.’s 1971 debut novel, The Paper Chase, was only a modest success in hardback. The 1973 film version, on the other hand, created quite a stir, much of it due to John Houseman’s Academy Award-winning performance as law professor Charles Kingsfield. In 1978, CBS adapted the story of the young law student (referred to only as “Hart” in the novel) and the intimidating professor he worships/fears into a TV series, also starring Houseman as Kingsfield. The series was cancelled after one season, but four years later Showtime resurrected it. In total, the TV series ran for four seasons and comprised 59 episodes (15 of which were scripted by John Jay Osborn Jr. himself).

The Paper Chase is not a brilliantly written novel but it benefits from an extremely clever ending (spoiler ahead) that makes the reading experience worthwhile. It tells the story of a first-year student at Harvard Law, who becomes obsessed with the man who teaches his contract law class. Professor Kingsfield assumes an outsized role in Hart’s imagination, and although Kingsfield treats Hart much the same as all his other students, Hart becomes convinced that the two of them are secretly engaged in an unspoken but somewhat hostile mentorship. Outside of class, Hart never approaches Kingsfield, but he seeks out all of his writings and devours them. He even becomes romantically involved with Kingsfield’s daughter.

Only when the school year has ended and Hart happens to see Kingsfield walking towards him on the campus grounds does Hart finally summon the nerve to approach him outside of class. He steps in front of the imperious professor and tells him that the contracts class meant a lot to him. “You meant a lot to me,” he adds. Kingsfield smiles slightly and then utters the devastating words, “What was your name?” Clearly, Kingsfield meant a lot more to Hart than Hart did to Kingsfield. It’s one of the great closing (or near closing) scenes in 1970s pop fiction. So, upon reading Osborn’s obituary in the New York Times, I was disappointed to learn that, in a 2003 interview, when asked if Kingsfield truly didn’t know Hart’s name in that final encounter, Osborn had responded, “Of course he had to know it.”

If Kingsfield was just trying to mess with the head of his young student, then the ending is little more than a cruel joke. If Kingsfield truly didn’t have much of a memory of Hart, then the ending serves as a metaphor for the way we often give our antagonists in life much more space in our imaginations than they deserve. Kingsfield was never the malevolent force that Hart sometimes perceived him to be. He was just a hard-ass professor, equally stern with all of his students, and barely aware of the differences between them (after all, the class consisted of roughly 150 students in a lecture hall). Learning this now, at the end of the novel, should make Hart stronger the next time he faces an imposing foe. If Kingsfield was just punking him, well, what lesson is Hart supposed to take from that?

Osborn wrote the novel while he was enrolled in Harvard Law School. The success of Erich Segal’s novel Love Story, which was published the previous year and was the bestselling book of 1970, probably helped Osborn’s novel find a publisher. Both Love Story and The Paper Chase are set at Harvard. Both novels are short, and both feature Harvard men in love with complicated women. Both Segal and Osborn had been Harvard undergraduates. The character of Kingsfield was based on two real-life Harvard Law professors known to Osborn. The narrator of Love Story, Oliver Barrett IV, was based on Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones, who were roommates at Harvard and whom Segal met there in 1968. Houghton Mifflin, Osborn’s publisher, was probably hoping to duplicate Segal’s success.

The film version of Love Story was the highest grossing movie of 1970. And that probably had something to do with why Hollywood was eager to make a film of The Paper Chase as well, but neither the book nor the film version of The Paper Chase was as commercially successful as its counterpart. Segal’s novel spent 41 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Osborn’s book never appeared on the list at all. Arthur Hiller’s film grossed $50 million at the box office. James Bridges’s adaptation of The Paper Chase grossed $3.6 million. Nevertheless, time has been kinder to The Paper Chase than to Love Story. On Rotten Tomatoes, The Paper Chase has an 83 percent approval rating, while Love Story’s is at 68 percent. Osborn’s book was given a 40th-anniversary re-release back in 2012, and it is still on a lot of recommended reading lists for first-year law students. Love Story is a very slight film novelization that has never received any respect (or even notice) from serious critics.

Osborn, who was born in August 1945, was arguably the first baby boomer to publish his signature novel. A few other boomers—Dean Koontz, Alice Walker, etc.—published novels before 1971 but not the novels that made them famous. Osborn, who had a long career as a lawyer and law professor, wrote three other novels in the decade that followed the publication of The Paper Chase, none of which achieved the success of his debut. In 2018, 37 years after the publication of his fourth novel, he published a fifth and final novel, but that didn’t make much of a splash either. John Jay Osborn Jr. died on October 19th at the age of 77.

Robert Goolrick

Robert Goolrick was born August 4th, 1948, in Charlottesville, Virginia. For much of his adult life he was a successful advertising executive in New York City. According to his New York Times obituary, a commercial he created for Foster’s beer became somewhat of an industry sensation. For reasons unspecified by the Times, he was fired from Grey Advertising in 2002, at which point, now 54 years old, he reinvented himself as a writer.

The first book he wrote was a gothic chiller called A Reliable Wife. While he searched for a publisher, he wrote a scorching memoir of his childhood called The End of the World as We Know It: Scenes from a Life. It was published by Algonquin Books in 2007 and sold well, but it created a rift between him and his brother and sister. Goolrick claimed that his wealthy, socially prominent parents were alcoholics who abused him terribly. He specifically claimed to have been raped by his father, an accusation that didn’t go over well with his brother, Chester, who didn’t speak to him for years afterwards and still maintains that their childhood was “idyllic.” Goolrick’s sister was also offended by the memoir.

The success of the memoir made it much easier for Goolrick to find a publisher for A Reliable Wife, and it appeared in bookshops in 2009 when its author was 61. It tells the story of wealthy Wisconsin industrialist Ralph Truitt who, in 1907, advertises for a wife in a variety of Midwestern newspapers. He specifically requests a plain-looking woman with reliable homemaking skills. His first wife was a notoriously faithless Italian beauty who possessed no homemaking skills whatsoever. She eventually ran off with her voice coach (she dreamed of being an opera singer) and died under miserable circumstances.

After researching all the applications that arrive in the mail, he chooses a woman named Catherine Land, the daughter of a Christian missionary father. She is in her mid-30s and has been left in dire financial straits by the death of her father. The photograph that accompanies her letter reveals her to be a plain-looking woman in drab clothing. Truitt writes back and offers to marry her. But when she arrives in his small Wisconsin hometown, he is in for a surprise. Catherine Land is not who she claimed to be in her letter, but Truitt is also hiding some fairly big secrets.

Over the course of its 320 enjoyable pages, the book takes plenty of wild twists and turns, some of which a diehard fan of gothic romances will probably be able to anticipate, and some of which may actually bring the reader a genuine surprise. Had it been published in 1972, the novel might’ve earned the kind of praise usually reserved for the genre’s greatest practitioners. In any case, it became a huge bestseller. Despite not meriting a review in the New York Times, it spent nearly a year on the Times’ trade-paperback bestseller list. For three of those weeks it was number one.

In his final 13 years, Goolrick wrote three more novels: Heading Out to Wonderful (2012), The Fall of Princes (2015), and The Dying of the Light (2018). That final novel is a tale of wealth and depravity at the top of the American social register, and written very much in the dishy style of Dominick Dunne’s best work. It features one of the most despicable villains in recent American pop fiction, a sadistic cad by the name of Captain Cooperton, and had he survived until the end of the novel, I don’t think I could have finished it. The book has enough plot and enough oddball characters to keep the pages turning furiously. It is a worthy capstone to Goolrick’s short but impressive writing career, but A Reliable Wife remains his masterpiece. Robert Goolrick died on April 29th at the age of 73.

Susie Steiner

British crime novelist Susie Steiner was taken from us far too early. The daughter of two prominent London psychoanalysts, Steiner received a degree in English Literature from the University of York in 1992, and spent the next 20 years as a journalist for various British newspapers. Her most noteworthy cultural contribution as a journalist was helping to resurrect the British wartime poster that read “Keep Calm and Carry On.” When the poster became annoyingly ubiquitous, she became ambivalent about her role in the phenomenon, a fact mentioned in her obituary at the Guardian (where she was employed as a staff writer for 11 years).

In 2012, Steiner left her job at the Guardian to write fiction. Her first novel, Homecoming, published in 2013, was a domestic drama set on a farm in Yorkshire. It got decent reviews but sold poorly. Unable to return to journalism (she had lost her eyesight in 2013 due to retinitis pigmentosa), she made her next novel a thriller, in the hope that it might be more commercially successful. Missing, Presumed, published in 2016, tells the story of Cambridgeshire Police Officer Manon Bradshaw, a 30-something single woman negotiating the dating scene in the age of Tinder while trying to solve the case of a missing 25-year-old woman whose father is a medical consultant to the Royal Family.

Steiner told an interviewer that Manon was “only 98.34 percent me—the rest is pure invention.” The gritty police procedural became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. It sold a quarter-of-a-million copies in Great Britain and a total of 700,000 worldwide. It was chosen as Best Book of the Year by National Public Radio and one of the 10 best mysteries of the year by the Wall Street Journal. Steiner followed it with two successful sequels and seemed to be on her way to producing a lot more.

Unfortunately, in 2019, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, which eventually proved fatal. When she died, she left behind a husband and two sons. The Manon Bradshaw series has been compared with Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series of crime novels. I’ve read only the first book in each series, and enjoyed them both, but I prefer Steiner’s novel. Susie Steiner died on July 2nd, just three days after her 51st birthday.

Higgins, Evans, Goolrick, Osborn, and Steiner were never in the running for Bookers or Pulitzers or Nobel Prizes. All these writers ever managed to accomplish was to entertain huge numbers of bookworms with eminently readable and often incredibly compelling stories. You could do a lot worse with your life.

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