Patterson was born in the North of England on July 27, 1929. He moved to moved to Belfast, Northern Ireland with his mother after his parents' marriage foundered, and was raised there amid religious and political violence. First in Belfast and later in Leeds, Patterson proved to be an indifferent student and left school without completing his studies. He found a home in the British Army, however, and served two years as a non-commissioned officer in the Household Cavalry on the East German border during the 1950s. Patterson found, during his military service, that he possessed both considerable sharpshooting skills and considerable intelligence (scoring 147 on an army intelligence test). After leaving the army, he returned to school, studying sociology at London University while supporting himself as a driver and laborer. Completing his degree, he worked for a time as a teacher and began writing novels in 1959. The growing success of his early work allowed him to take time off from his teaching, and he eventually left the classroom to become a full-time novelist. He currently lives on Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, and continues to publish a new novel annually.
Patterson's early novels, written under his own name as well as under the pseudonyms James Graham, Martin Fallon, and Hugh Marlow, are brisk, competent, but essentially forgettable thrillers that typically feature hardened, cynical heroes, ruthless villains, and dangerous locales. Patterson published thirty-five such novels--sometimes three or four a year--between 1959 and 1974, learning his craft (as many thriller writers have, in the world of paperback originals. East of Desolation (1968), A Game for Heroes (1970) and The Savage Day (1972) stand out among his early work for their vividly drawn settings (Greenland, the Channel Islands, and Belfast, respectively) and offbeat plots.
Patterson began using the pseudonym "Jack Higgins" in the late 1960s, but it was the publication of The Eagle Has Landed in 1975 that made "Higgins'" reputation. Eagle represented a step forward in the length and depth of Patterson's work. Its plot (concerned with a German commando unit sent into England to kidnap Winston Churchill) was fresh and innovative, and the characters had significantly more depth than in his earlier work. One in particular stood out: Irish gunman, poet, and philosopher Liam Devlin. Higgins followed Eagle (which sold tens of millions of copies worldwide) with a series of equally ambitious thrillers, including several ("Touch the Devil," "Confessional," "The Eagle Has Flown") featuring return appearances by Devlin.
The third phase of Patterson's career began with the publication of Eye of the Storm in 1992. A fictionalized retelling of an unsuccessful Irish Republican Army mortar attack on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, it featured a ruthless young Irish gunman-philosopher named Sean Dillon. Recruited by British intelligence at the beginning of the next novel, Thunder Point (1993), Dillon became Patterson's first real continuing character--a Liam Devlin for the 1990s and beyond.