A Killer at Thrillers

updated 03/20/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/20/1995 01:00AM

A COLD WINTER'S NIGHT CREEPS over New York City, and James Patterson, author of the red-hot thriller Kiss the Girls, is watching from the shadows of his ever-darkening sun-room. When a reporter asks if she should be edgy in the presence of a man whose grisly murder scenes take a cue from the Marquis de Sade, Patterson says softly, "Just think of me as Alex."

Alex Cross, that is, the hip D.C. sleuth (think Denzel Washington or Danny Glover, one of whom may play the part onscreen) who scours the North Carolina backwoods searching for babes in bondage in Patterson's latest chiller.

Kiss hit best-seller lists in January, one week after it was published, and has already sold 320,000 copies. Add to that the $1 million Paramount Pictures paid for screen rights, along with the multi-million sales of Patterson's first Alex Cross thriller, Along Came a Spider, and it wouldn't be surprising if the author walked away from his day job.

But not the high-powered Patterson. As chairman of advertising giant J. Walter Thompson/North America, the 47-year-old novelist can also claim credit for such commercial catchphrases as "Nupe it," "I'm a Toys 'R' Us Kid" and "Aren't you hungry for a Burger King now?" He is as happy running a board meeting as he is writing fiction. "I like to go inside myself," he says, "but I also need to go outside and meet other people, and I like the ad work."

The ad work begins at 7:30 a.m., when Patterson arrives at his office, where he oversees some 1,000 staffers and accounts in excess of $2 billion. Even before he charges through a round of meetings—blocked out in 15-minute segments on index cards—he has put in at least 90 minutes at his kitchen table writing lines like: He felt like a sleek Ninja warrior and looked like Terror itself with his naked handpainted body. The perfect crime. He loved the feeling. "When people think of my books, I want them to say, 'I can't put those down,' " says the man who has cruised bookstores to see how his products are displayed and introduces himself to strangers he catches buying his books.

Some can put his work down. (The San Francisco Chronicle tagged Kiss "loathsome" for its "Female Dismemberment and Mutilation School of Mystery Writing.") "There are effects in the book we can debate about," Patterson concedes. "I'm not writing Moby Dick; I want to be king of the page-turners."

Growing up in Newburgh, N.Y., 50 miles north of Manhattan, Patterson "was never pushed to be more than he was," says his mother, Isabelle, a retired teacher. "He pushed himself." (His father, Charles, is a retired insurance executive. Three younger sisters round out the family.) Valedictorian of the class of '65 at St. Patrick's, a Christian Brothers school, Patterson majored in English at Manhattan College (Phi Beta Kappa) and started "scribbling" during summers spent as an aide at McLean Hospital, an upscale mental institute outside Boston.

Night shifts gave him time to read, while patients offered fresh plot lines. Patterson struck up a friendship with one, the poet Robert Lowell. "He couldn't go out of the hall unescorted, so he'd say, 'Hey, Jimmy, wanna go for a walk?' Patterson recalls. "When he was not depressed, he would talk about his poems and why he wrote them."

By 1971, Patterson was living in Manhattan and working as a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson. There, in 1974, he met Jane Blanchard, with whom he lived for the next 10 years. The couple was talking of having a child when Blanchard was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1981. Patterson took tender care of her until her death three years later. "He was deeply in love with Jane," says his father. "When he lost her, it was tough."

Patterson tried to erase his grief with hard work. "I wanted to have something to do to escape," he says. "That's when I took off in advertising." Within four years, at 39, he was named CEO. He became chairman in 1990 and Worldwide Creative Director last year.

Before his fiction career took off, Patterson cowrote 1992's The Day America Told the Truth, a survey of national opinions on sex, religion and money. The intensity and focus he brings to each commercial project spills over to the golf course. "When Jim's in the process of setting up his swing," says his friend Frank Nicolo, "an atom bomb could go off, and it wouldn't deter him at all." Off the course, Patterson likes to read (he found The Hot Zone particularly spooky), see movies (Pulp Fiction was a recent fave) and keep up with pals, including old school buddies. Each summer he opens up his sprawling beachfront house in Mantoloking, N.J., to a parade of friends and family.

His love life is not as crowded (a relationship with a coworker ended amicably last November), but Patterson believes in happy endings. "The best thing that has happened to me has been to be in love for an extended period. I don't know exactly how to do it," he says. "But I'd drop a lot of things to make it happen."

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