Modern Writer - James Patterson
An academic essay on James Patterson
As much as I love the 'old stuff' and I very rarely speak about modern writers, I do (occasionally), read things from the modern day.
James Patterson, an American author known for his crime novels. He is one of the most prolific writers of the twenty first century, with more books in his bibliography than Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown combined. Patterson has been able to delve into different mediums to adapt his books for film and television, as well as writing graphic novels and comics. He has been the inspiration for many authors, including Liza Markland – a Swedish crime writer, and many other budding and established authors such as Sue Grafton, Conor Kostick and Nicholas Evans.
Patterson first gained recognition in 1995, with his second novel – Kiss the Girls; part of the Alex Cross series. Patterson’s Alex Cross crime fiction series is his most notable work to date. He continues to push the boundaries of the Crime Fiction Genre in his stand-alone fiction, like Bloody Valentine (2011). As well as Alex Cross, Patterson is also credited by his famous collection of Women’s Murder Club books, where he famously collaborated with Maxine Paetro – nominated for the ‘Good Reads Choice Awards for a female detective.’ (Steinkellner, 2012)
The Women’s Murder Club books deviate from Patterson’s male crime fighters, as Lindsay Boxer is a socialite who fights crime with her girlfriends, as opposed to Alex cross who fights the ‘bad guys’ and vicious murderers who the audience want to see brought to justice.
Patterson often creates tension in his novels by using shorter sentences. This is seen in the 4th July (2005).
‘One thing was clear. The Killers hadn’t tried to kill me. The belt was a warning meant to scare me away. I wondered why they bothered.’
He uses this technique a lot to build tension so that the reader feels the same as the protagonist, thus creating a bond with the reader; making them care about what is happening the characters. Patterson also uses anaphora:
‘We didn’t know why. We didn’t know who… We didn’t know where…’
This helps build tension in the same passage, mimicking the voice the reader – helping to involve them with the story and help them know and understand the protagonist. The use of anaphora makes the novel seem true to life and the audience can sympathise with the characters.
Patterson has described being influenced by a number of notable people and places. The most prominent being DC Comics writers and James Joyce, an Irish novelist. Joyce has been described as using an ‘experimental use of language’ (James Atherton, 2006) and having strengths in ‘character portrayal and… humour,’ (James Atherton, 2006) which can be seen throughout Patterson’s work. Patterson is often seen using humour in his books:
‘There’s a Thermos in back.
No, it’s for you to take a piss in.’
Patterson uses humour a lot in his children’s books too, as he is very passionate about getting them to read. He describes:
‘The best way to get kids reading more is to give them books that they’ll gobble up – and that will make them ask for another.’
Patterson was also influenced by working in a psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts. Perhaps this is why Alex Cross has a degree in psychology and Patterson’s descriptions of what happens to a character mentally, can be so vivid and full of symbolism. This is the case in Bloody Valentine (2011). Patterson describes, ‘London’s traffic… and the black shadow…’ (James Patterson, 2011) being reflected in the mirror. This symbolises the mind-set of the killer, which is later revealed in the book. The character references a woman to a fictional film because the murderer finds it cute.
‘The Hitchcock movie was an elegant, witty, mysterious game, just like this was.’
However, it’s an Alfred Hitchcock film, a thriller, and by making references to this, it hints at the mental state of the killer. The reader gets a sense of the childishness about it all. But when in the killer’s mind – they are playing a game; the audience forget that they’re the killers for a little while. Also, the killer uses the childishness behaviour as a ruse for other characters – making them seem like the least likely killer. Patterson cleverly distracts from the killer’s original psychopathic mindset, and makes them appear more ‘normal’ for a time.
Patterson is intrinsically good at vivid descriptions. He takes the unknown mind’s eye of the reader, and describes a scene with such precision that any reader – no matter what their experience – is able to picture the scenario,
‘Zee’s eyes dulled. Gradually, they lost the brightness of life.’
(Patterson, 2011:28) and –
‘crack… thrust… snap.’
The effective use of onomatopoeia in this section also adds to the vivid descriptions given by Patterson.
Patterson uses pragmatics through jargon. Assuming shared knowledge with the reader makes them feel more involved with the process of finding a killer. In the case of Bloody Valentine, one character remarks,
‘I was executor and a beneficiary. [She] reverted to his original will.’
Furthermore, this is seen in the 4th July- during the court proceedings, he uses jargon:
‘’And, Doctor, had the deceased recently fired a gun?’
‘Yes. I saw some darkening at the base of her index finger that would be consistent with a cylinder flare.’
‘How do you know that’s gunshot residue?’
‘I photographed the smudging, documented it and did a gunshot residue test, which was submitted to the laboratory and came back positive.’’
But when Patterson writes conversation between characters outside of a formal setting, he uses colloquialisms to reflect speech that would be used in everyday life between friends, family, etc.
“The sugar plum fairy,” I blurred.
“I’ve been called worse,” she laughed. It was Claire. I was on her table and that meant I was a goner for sure. “Claire? Can you hear me?”
“Loud and clear, baby” she hugged me gently, wrapping me with a mother’s embrace.’
Thus, once again, Patterson is making his fiction parallel to real life.
Patterson writes many of his novels and short stories to follow a chronological turn of events, ‘Then he… after that… The next morning.’ (Patterson, 2005:20-38) Using this method to write his stories, it draws the reader into a journey with the detective. Also, even though sometimes Patterson writes in the voice of the omniscient killer remembering events, they are still written chronologically.
Patterson describes his killers as if they are normal, everyday people. This helps give a greater impact on the reader when they learn who the murderer is. By making the monster – the killer in this case – seem more human, the reader is taken aback when they uncover the truth. Patterson himself describes his killers as,
‘… human beings. I think that’s what separates ‘good’ killers. The more identifications you make, the more satisfying it is.’
Patterson often adopts ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ in his standalone fiction; exposing hints of who the killer is early on, but the reader isn’t aware of this until the end of the book. He tends to give the reader a taste of the killer’s character at the very beginning, this is seen in Bloody Valentine (2011), where Patterson describes,
‘Leila had given up her nursing career to care for Mamie.’
The reader learns that Leila has medical knowledge, which then is raised again when we discover that the victim had his heart cut out but the way it was done needed someone with ‘medical knowledge.’ (Patterson, 2011:16)
Patterson also uses information from real life to make his fiction more believable to his audience,
‘Who told you Zee’s blood was on Ted’s Shirt?
One of the Police Constables.
Police Officers have faults, but a loose mouth is trained out of them.’
Patterson has made use of the different mediums available to him as a writer. As well as having published novels for adults and children alike, such as Mary, Mary (2005) and Confessions of a Murder Suspect (2012), he has also published standalone fiction like Hide and Seek (1996), The Jester (2003) and bookshots – The Trial (2016). By being able to expand his writing style, Patterson has been able to branch out into many areas to get his work noticed.
Patterson’s short stories, like Guilty Wives (2012) are written to make the audience interact with the story. Every piece of information we’re told is important and in his short stories, Patterson doesn’t ramble needless information; his characters examine evidence and talk to witnesses in a timely manner- so it’s fast paced and keeps the reader interested and they don’t lose sight of the facts that were mentioned. This encourages the reader to ultimately come to the conclusion of who the killer is by themselves. They feel more like the detective’s partner who is in the moment, as opposed to someone who is reading about an event. Patterson has described:
‘I try to pretend that there’s somebody across from me and I’m telling them a story and I don’t want them to get up until I’m finished.’
(James Patterson, 2012:8)
Additionally, Patterson has dabbled in non-fiction writing, for example, he wrote about The Murder of King Tut (2009). Here, Patterson examines real life evidence, as opposed to creating his own crime scene and murderer. This 2009 book, also helped him to craft the perfect crime scene, incorporating true ideas, mixed with fiction.
It has been debated recently whether crime fiction should be considered a genre; much like ‘Grimdark.’ Despite this, crime writers like Ian Rankin and Kathy Reichs have argued against this, describing how crime parallels real life situations; like parliament having ‘links between them and organised crime’ (Rankin, 2017:1) and how Crime Fiction can ‘range over all levels of society’ (Rankin,2017:1) which gives it the edge over ‘straight literature.’ (Rankin,2017:2) Patterson has taken on contemporary themes, like ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,’ to make his fiction more relevant in today’s society. In the ‘4th July’ Patterson describes:
‘I felt for my 9mm Glock, still at my waist, wrapped my hand around the grip and sat up.
“Drop your gun!” I shouted, pointing my weapon at Sara.
‘Fuck you, bitch,” she yelled back. Her face was etched with dear as she levelled her 22 and squeezed off three rounds… It’s notoriously hard to hit your target with a pistol, but I did what I was trained to do. I aimed for central mass, the centre of her chest and double tapped: boom-boom. Sara’s face crumpled and she collapsed.’
Here we can see the struggle a police officer has by not wanting to shoot a youth, but not having any choice. The police woman later on in the story has to face the consequences of her actions. This almost runs parallel with the crime scene in America at the moment. As well as this, the passage is fast paced, with many monosyllabic words, to build the tension. At this stage, the reader is holding their breath. Then, the plosive alliteration ‘boom-boom’ mimics the heartbeat sound of the reader, but also represents the woman being shot. The reader then breaths and is left feeling the effects of such an intense scene.
Despite the ongoing argument in the world of literature, more and more twenty-first century crime fiction is being adapted for film and television. This in itself should be seen as going in the right direction for establishing crime fiction as a genre. Patterson himself has had several novels adapted into scripts for television and film. Many of his Alex Cross series have been turned into scripts, as have his children’s stories, from 1991 – 2016. Moreover, he has appeared in two episodes of Castle (2009-2010) which helped him to build on his portfolio as a crime fiction writer.
Patterson has influenced many writers. Karen Woodward and Sue Grafton are just two. Both of them write Crime Fiction and have taken themes and ideas from Patterson’s work. Grafton has also been noted to say that she
‘enjoys reading The Women’s Murder Club.’
With being such a prolific and well-known writer within his genre, this has created obvious media buzz and has prompted many people to comment on his work. There have been many articles written about Patterson’s work, including one being published in Vanity Fair. These studies/articles are often very complementary of his work – describing how Patterson is ‘the undisputed king.’ (Purdum, 2014) One study on Patterson, has described how he will ‘save literature’ (Dodero, 2017) as he gives to charity, that aids children with reading and writing.
Alternatively, Patterson receives criticism for how many books he publishes in a year. One reviewer, even went as far as to say his writing is
‘sloppy’ (Morris, 2014) because of it. Moreover, Stephen King has described him as being a ‘terrible writer.’
Patterson has been writing for well over twenty years, and in that time, he has created some of the most descriptive Crime Fiction material money can buy. His experiences in his personal life have helped him craft his work, and his ability to write in a number of mediums has made his name a well-known one throughout the industry.