by Ann M. Colford

Auntie's should be packed to the rafters this Sunday afternoon for the appearance of best-selling author James Patterson, who is just beginning the tour for his newest soon-to-be-blockbuster, Jester. The bookstore scored a coup by getting Patterson -- whose last 12 books have been No. 1 bestsellers -- to jet cross-state for a few hours during his two-day Seattle stopover.

Patterson may be best known for his nursery-rhyme thrillers (Kiss The Girls, Cradle And All, and five others) starring African-American homicide detective Alex Cross, but in Jester, co-written with Andrew Gross, he extends his reach toward historical fiction. Set in the 11th century, Jester chronicles the adventures of Hugh De Luc, an innkeeper caught up in the turmoil of the Crusades and the tyrannical rule of a ruthless duke. Patterson has taken a distinctly populist approach to a story that's been around for a millennium.

"History has been written by nobles and by those commissioned by nobles, so I thought it would be fun to write a historical novel from the perspective of a common person, and one with a sense of humor," he says.

The book's setting also comes as close to a political statement as the author is likely to make. "It's a timely subject now," he says of the inflamed religious passions of the Crusades. "I'm not big on putting lessons in my books -- I think people are too smart for that -- but if we did, the lesson would be that we never learn. Here we are doing the same thing again."

The book just hit the streets this week, so it's too early to know what the critics will have to say about it. And yet critical response doesn't matter -- it's a James Patterson novel, and therefore it will be a bestseller within the week. Patterson breathes the elite air of franchise players like John Grisham, Nora Roberts and Danielle Steel, authors whose names on the spines guarantee sales despite frequent dissing from the literary lions.

It's easy and snobbishly cool to take potshots at Patterson and company for not making high-minded literature. Still, let me be honest up front and say that Jester did not work for me. Of course, many people -- millions, probably -- will read this book and enjoy it. But the book failed to deliver the ingredients crucial to my enjoyment of a story. I look for in-depth characterizations and evidence that the people in a novel have some life of the mind. I shy away from graphic depictions of sadistic violence because I don't need any more demons -- real or fictitious -- to keep me awake at night. I enjoy clever wordplay, innovative narratives and rich relationships.

These are not the qualities of a Patterson novel, however, and Jester is true to form. His warriors talk like the wise-crackin' actors in an action-adventure flick, and his characters are uniformly predictable. For instance, when Hugh is rescued by a mysterious noblewoman after one of his many life-threatening escapades, it's clear that she will become a love interest, even though he's on a quest to rescue his wife at the time. (Don't worry, I'm not giving anything away; this all happens within the first 100 pages.) And it's no surprise when she later turns out to be... but, never mind. If you climb aboard the Jester express, you'll figure it out soon enough.

That being said, though, Patterson himself is a most charming fellow. In fact, I wish his characters were more like him. He's thoughtful, pleasant, well-read and comes complete with a disarming wit, which he promises to display during his visit to Auntie's.

"I don't read from the book at events," he says. "I think that's boring. I just tell stories, anecdotal things, funny stories. It'll be a raucous crowd, and invariably people will come up and say, 'You should be a stand-up comic.' I want people to be entertained."

And that's Patterson's raison d'etre -- to entertain people. He knows his books are not considered "literary," and that's just fine with him.

"People have come up to me and said, 'I had stopped reading anything, but then I read your book and now I've started reading again,'" he says. "I've had high school teachers come to events with the kids from their classes, and the kids say it's the first book they ever liked. When you get kids reading a book, then that gives you the chance to discuss plot and character and all those elements of fiction. I really want to spread the word and get people reading."

Patterson spent many years in advertising, rising to chairman of the firm J. Walter Thompson before turning to full-time writing just a few years ago. His publishers say he is a shrewd marketer who knows, often better than they do, what it takes to be recognized on the bookshelves. His stories carry the punch of Hollywood, and it's not surprising that several of his books have been made into movies. The author says he doesn't think cinematically when he's writing, however.

"No, I write the book and figure the movie will take care of itself," he quips, adding that he really doesn't have a lot to do with the movie adaptations of his stories. "What I really like about the Hollywood process is cashing the checks."

Publication date: 03/06/03

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Sat., Feb. 11, 7-10 p.m.
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