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Philip Nicholson (A. J. Quinnell)
1940 - 2005

A. J. Quinnell was the pen name of Philip Nicholson (born on June 25, 1940 in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, UK), a mystery and thriller writer. He travelled throughout his life and several of the minor characters in his books are actual people he met. He was married three times with his last wife, Elsebeth Egholm, being a Danish mystery novelist. Nicholson simply loved Ghajnsielem - so much that he was President (by serving  four full terms as President from 84/85 to 87/88) and later on Honorary President of the Ghajnsielem Football Club. He is often is credited with reinvigorating the Club in the mid-eighties.

The author's best known creation was the character of John Creasy, an American-born former member of the French Foreign Legion. The Creasy novels are cult favourites in Japan. Man on Fire was adapted to film twice (1987/2004). This has resulted in a wider demand for Quinnell's books, especially those featuring Creasy, including The Blue Ring and Message From Hell.

When the author was getting ready to publish his first book, he decided he wanted to keep his real identity a secret. During a conversation in a bar, his agent (who is also J. K. Rowling's agent) told him he could use a pseudonym. The author chose "Quinnell" after rugby union player Derek Quinnell and "A. J." because they were the initials of the bartender's son.

His Story
written by Revel Barker

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 Tanganyika 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 f***ing 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 1981, it became an immediate best-seller. Searching for a nom-de-plume, and looking for an unusual name, he took the surname of 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, 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 the hero’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 early copies are much sought after and highly prized. Paperback copies of Snap Shot are offered on the Internet at more than £130; Message From Hell at £68, an early edition of Man On Fire at £63.

Nicholson, married to Danish novelist Elsebeth Egholm, was working on what he had already decided would be his last novel, a “prequel” to Man On Fire, when he died at home in Gozo where he had lived since the early seventies.

On the 10th of July 2005 on Gozo in the afternoon, Philip Nicholson (a.k.a. A. J. Quinnell) had passed away.

Man on Fire (1980) - Creasy
The Mahdi (1981)
Snap Shot (aka The Snap) (1982)
Blood Ties (1985)
Siege of Silence (1986)
In the Name of the Father (1987)
The Perfect Kill (1992) - Creasy
The Shadow (1992)
The Blue Ring (1993) - Creasy
Black Horn (1994) - Creasy
Message from Hell (1996) - Creasy
The Trail of Tears (1999)
A Quiet Night in Hell (2001)
The Scalpel (2001)


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