A. J. Quinnell

Pseudonymous author of 'Man on Fire'
Click to follow

Philip Nicholson used to sit with both elbows on the bar of Gleneagles, his favourite watering hole in Gozo, Malta, and watch with amusement as tourists entered in search of the best-selling author who used the nom de plume A. J. Quinnell. Often an English or American tourist would put himself forward, sometimes it would be a local Gozitan fisherman; Nicholson himself would keep quiet, although chuckling with joy as the pretenders wrestled to answer intricate and detailed questions from his passionate readers.

Nicholson, born in Nuneaton during an air-raid and educated mainly at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Wakefield, had adopted an alias chiefly as a means of distancing himself from the public in the event that his books became successful. As a teenager spending holidays with his parents in Tanzania he had met a party of white hunters surrounding his then hero, Ernest Hemingway. When he asked to meet the great man he was rebuffed with the message: "I have no time for fucking kids." Young Nicholson considered this to be bad form. Already convinced that one day he too would be an author, he decided on the spot that he would never behave in a similar way with his public.

But first he had to earn some money. After school he worked for a shipping company in Liverpool and at 20 became a trader in textiles working out of Hong Kong. It was while there that he met the characters who would form the basis for his thrillers - mercenaries, former members of the French Foreign Legion, journalists and crooks.

Once, on a flight between Tokyo and Hong Kong, a fellow passenger, an Italian, suffered a heart attack. The crew was about to order an ambulance from the General Hospital but Nicholson intervened and told them to contact a private hospital, where he had connections, and where he convinced the stricken man's associates he would receive better attention. The following day he was visited by a group of Italians who expressed their eternal thanks, and promised him help if ever he needed it.

When he started researching the plot for Man on Fire, a book based on the increasing number of Mafia kidnappings in Italy, he made contact with the man's family. They were eager to help, and provided introductions to lawyers, to anti-Mafia investigators, and to mafiosi who were happy to assist and who even asked to be named in the novel. Published in New York in 1980 and London in 1981, it became an immediate best-seller. Searching for a nom de plume, and looking for an unusual name, he took the surname of the Welsh rugby forward Derek Quinnell, and the initials, A.J., from the son of his local barman.

In 1987 the book was made into a lack-lustre movie starring Scott Glenn and Joe Pesci with Jade Malle as the young girl kidnap victim. The screenplay went through several transitions under Italian-French direction. At one stage, reading the script, Nicholson mentioned that it did not appear to be following the line of the book. The script-writers replied: "You mean, there's a book . . .?" Nicholson, who had imagined his hero as looking like Robert Mitchum, was unimpressed by the outcome, as was the majority of the cinema-going public.

When Hollywood remade the film last year the director Tony Scott cast Denzel Washington as the hero, Creasy, and Dakota Fanning as the young victim, but he used Mexico as the location because of the inordinately high number of kidnappings in Mexico City. It received high critical acclaim, not least from Nicholson himself, who was happy that it used a lot of his original dialogue.

By this time the book had sold more than eight million copies in paperback and had been translated around the world. The most ardent fans emerged in Japan, where readers admired the samurai-style dedication of the hero. Although the book notes said only that the author lived "on an island in the Mediterranean", Gozo figured extensively as Creasy's home base. His local was named as Gleneagles and many of the local fishermen in the bar - many of whom could not read fluently in English - had cheerfully agreed to be featured as characters. The Maltese islands thus received their first influx of Japanese tourists, who came on specially organised literary jaunts in search of the author, and Nicholson (as Quinnell) was invited several times on lecture tours and book signings in Tokyo.

Many of his novels are now out of print and much sought after. Snap Shot (1982) is offered on the internet at more than £130; Message from Hell (1996) at £68, an early edition of Man on Fire at £63.

Nicholson, married to the Danish novelist Elsebeth Egholm, was working on what he had already decided would be his last novel, a "prequel" to the Creasy saga, when he died at home in Gozo where he had lived since the early Seventies.

Revel Barker