With his new book, The Jester, the creator of detective Alex Cross, the Women's Murder Club and a veritable metropolis of other characters, peers into the turbulent village and castle life of 11th-century France. In a dramatic change of pace, James Patterson best known for his contemporary suspense thrillers brings readers the story of Hugh De Luc, who leaves his young wife to enlist in what will come to be known as the First Crusade. When Hugh returns more than two years later, sickened by the cruelty and carnage he's encountered, he finds his home has been burned and his wife kidnapped by a local warlord. Hugh's mission henceforth is to right these wrongs by invading the courts of his enemies in the guise of a jester.

"I've had that story in my head for a dozen years," says Patterson, speaking from his home in Florida. "Most history has been written from the point-of-view of nobles or the people they've commissioned. The notion of a common person particularly a common person with a sense of humor was a story that really appealed to me. What we have here is a hero who's part Braveheart and part Jerry Seinfeld and Sherlock Holmes. That's kind of a fun combination." "Fun" is not the first word that snaps to mind as heads roll and blood spurts in the wake of Hugh's grimly determined quest. But the story does have its comic-book elements. The action is fast and unceasing; character development is minimal; the language is conversational; and the delineation between good and evil is broadly marked. Patterson and co-author Andrew Gross also endow their protagonist with some decidedly modern notions of social equality.

The period during which the Crusades took place, Patterson notes, "is an interesting time to read about. It's unbelievable what went on then. It's kind of interesting right now because we're right at the crossroads of another possible encounter between Christianity and [Islam] another holy war. . . . Back in those times, Hannibal Lecter would have been just another foot soldier. But beyond the violence, there's a black humor. When things get that bad, the only refuge we have is humor." So much has been written about Patterson's incessant output of books and his involvement in making them sell that he's become a bit weary of discussing it. How does he choose his co-authors? "I go to the phone book," he deadpans. And the division of writing chores? "We alternate words." Pressed for a straighter answer, he responds, "I don't really get into the process [of how I co-write], because every time I sort of lay out what I do, the next thing you know, somebody else is doing the same thing." Patterson says he met Gross through his publisher. "He had submitted a novel at one point, and it didn't get bought. But they thought it was an interesting book, and I read it and thought it was pretty good. We just started shooting the breeze, and we got along very well." Their first book together was the 2002 Women's Murder Club mystery, 2nd Chance.

Patterson's own tastes in fiction developed slowly and eclectically. "I went to a Catholic high school in upstate New York, and I didn't like to read at all. I still hate Silas Marner. However, my family moved to Massachusetts right after my senior year. I had to pay my way through college [by] working at a mental hospital. I had a lot of free time at night. I started reading everything I could get my hands on, and I found a lot of stuff that was terrific. In those days, I preferred the more outlandish [books] [Jean Genet's] Our Lady of the Flowers and John Rechy [City of Night], stuff that was dark but interesting." Prompted by such literary discoveries, he went on to earn a master's degree in English at Vanderbilt University.

For the interviewer's benefit, Patterson looks around his admittedly "messy" office and counts out 19 separate "piles" of paper, each a book in embryo. Nearing birth, he says, are an Alex Cross novel, another in the Women's Murder Club series, "a kind of Suzanne's Diary [For Nicholas]" and an "offbeat mystery." NBC-TV, he continues, is ready to air a three-hour production of 1st To Die. A script has been written for another Alex Cross movie Roses Are Red and work has started on a movie treatment of Suzanne's Diary. Coming this summer, he adds, is Lake House, a follow-up to When The Wind Blows. The Cross novel, entitled The Big Bad Wolf, is due out this fall.

Not surprisingly, Patterson writes every day. What is surprising, though, is that he uses a pencil instead of a word processor. "I am not on the computer," he asserts. "My wife is. My 5-year-old is. I'm not. I'm sitting here right now, and I have the new Cross, triple-spaced, and I write between the lines. Then off it goes again and gets retyped, and back it'll come again. It just goes like that." Once his manuscript has been sent to the publisher, Patterson says he involves himself "a fair amount" in preparing to take the ensuing book to the public. "We kind of like to sit in a room and go, Do we like the book? Do we like the cover? Do we like the [proposed] tour? I think that's a healthy thing to do."

Patterson is proud of the diversity of his fiction, ranging as it does from historical to detective to love stories. "I'm not aware of anybody else who has done that," he observes. Would he ever write a western? "Yeah, I might. I'm doing one now that's set around the time of Teddy Roosevelt. So we're almost back to the West." Besides the variety of his books, Patterson points to another quality worth noting: "On a pure readership level, a pure, spellbinding, can't-put-it-down level, they're pretty successful. Forget about sales. They just move along real well."

Edward Morris is a Nashville-based music and entertainment writer.

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