At a time when reading for pleasure is on the decline, James Patterson knows better than anyone how to keep selling novels. Since his first thriller was published in 1976, the 74-year-old from upstate New York has gone on to sell more than 400 million books worldwide. He holds the record for the most appearances on The New York Times bestseller list, and the record for the most times topping that list. For the past 13 years in a row, Patterson has been the most borrowed author from British libraries. Last year, Forbes estimated he brought in around $80m (£59m), making him America’s highest paid author. He has built this empire on the back of a staggering production rate: this year alone, no fewer than 11 new James Patterson titles will hit bookshelves around the world.
Still, even bestselling authors aren’t averse to the odd publicity stunt. This Wednesday, at Bethnal Green Town Hall in London, Patterson will put his detective hero Alex Cross on trial for a gruesome triple murder in the author’s first ever interactive live event: “The Judge, The Jury and James Patterson.” Given that Cross, who first appeared in 1993’s Along Came A Spider, is now the star of the world’s bestselling detective series, it isn’t hard to guess the verdict his creator will be lobbying for. “I hope he gets off,” says Patterson with a chuckle when we speak over video call from his Mediterranean-style villa in Palm Beach, Florida. The event wasn’t Patterson’s idea, but he immediately saw the appeal. “Courtroom stuff is always really interesting, so the idea of putting Alex on trial and having a live jury there who are gonna vote on it seemed fun… it’s hard to draw attention to books these days.”
The event is being held to promote the publication of Fear No Evil, the 29th instalment in the Alex Cross series. In typical Patterson fashion, his new thriller is a breakneck, globe-trotting adventure that bounces Cross from Washington DC to LA, Paris, Mexico City and finally the wilderness of Montana, where he finds himself caught between a murderous drug cartel and a rogue group of vigilante soldiers who’ve gone to war with them. It’s all faintly implausible, of course, but Patterson argues that’s part of his style, too. “For the most part, I don’t do realism,” he says. “Every once in a while a critic will go: ‘This isn’t very realistic!’ Not that I compare myself to Picasso, but to me that’s like looking at a Picasso and saying: ‘Well, this isn’t very realistic!’ That’s not good criticism. You can say ‘I hate this’ or ‘I think it stinks’, but Fear No Evil is not realism. It’s over the top, more like movies, but you always hope there’s some emotional truth too.”