Queen of Sus­pense and fix­ture on best-seller lists dies

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - News/obituaries - BY HELEN T. VERONGOS

Mary Higgins Clark, a fix­ture on best-seller lists for decades whose more than 50 nov­els earned her the so­bri­quet Queen of Sus­pense, died Fri­day in Naples, Florida. She was 92 and had homes in Sad­dle River, New Jersey, Man­hat­tan and Cape Cod.

Her death was an­nounced by her daugh­ter Carol Higgins Clark, also a mys­tery nov­el­ist.

Mary Higgins Clark, whose books sold more than 100 mil­lion copies in the United States alone, was still writ­ing un­til re­cently, her daugh­ter said, and had a book pub­lished in Novem­ber.

Le­gions of read­ers were ad­dicted to her page­turn­ers, which popped up on the mar­ket one af­ter an­other. She wanted to cre­ate sto­ries that would make a reader say, “This could be me. That could be my daugh­ter. This could hap­pen to us,” she told Mar­i­lyn Sta­sio in a 1997 in­ter­view in the New York Times.

Higgins Clark’s he­roes are most often fe­male, her vil­lains, male, and she said re­peat­edly that she wrote about “nice peo­ple whose lives are in­vaded.”

Sta­sio wrote that “Mary Higgins Clark writes to a sim­ple for­mula that en­tails putting a woman in peril and let­ting her fig­ure her own way out.” Although that for­mula is “repet­i­tive and pre­dictable,” she wrote, “it al­ways works be­cause Ms. Clark is a nat­u­ral-born sto­ry­teller.”

It cer­tainly worked for fans. Masses of fol­low­ers flocked to her Face­book page and show­ered her with praise and ques­tions, and she kept them in­formed about her projects.

In her mem­oir, “Kitchen Priv­i­leges” (2002), Higgins Clark de­scribed her­self as “aching, yearn­ing, burn­ing” to write, cer­tain that she would suc­ceed but need­ing guid­ance. Even­tu­ally, she found it in a writ­ing class at New York Univer­sity. The pro­fes­sor sug­gested his stu­dents seize upon a sit­u­a­tion they had ex­pe­ri­enced or read about and be­gin by ask­ing the ques­tions “Sup­pose … ?” and “What if … ?” It is a recipe Higgins Clark said she stuck to, with the ad­di­tion of the ques­tion “Why?”

There are, how­ever, two things you will never find in her books: sex and pro­fan­ity, and that choice was de­lib­er­ate.

In her first suc­cess­ful novel, “Where Are the Chil­dren?” (1975), which Higgins Clark sold for $3,000, a young mother ac­cused of killing her son and daugh­ter changes her iden­tity, finds a new hus­band and builds an­other fam­ily, only to have her sec­ond set of chil­dren dis­ap­pear.

Mary Theresa Eleanor Higgins was born Dec. 24, 1927, in the Bronx. When she was 11, her fa­ther, Luke, an Ir­ish im­mi­grant who had owned a thriv­ing pub be­fore the De­pres­sion, died, leav­ing her mother, Nora, with three chil­dren. A few years later, she lost her beloved older brother.

Each loss meant Higgins Clark had to work harder. To help pay ex­penses af­ter her fa­ther’s death, she got af­ter-school jobs, one as a switch­board op­er­a­tor at the Shel­ton Ho­tel in Man­hat­tan, where she eaves­dropped on in­hab­i­tants, in­clud­ing Ten­nessee Wil­liams, who, she noted in her mem­oir, had the cheap­est room in the ho­tel, at $30 a month.

In lis­ten­ing to his con­ver­sa­tions, Higgins Clark wrote, “I didn’t hear any­thing that fas­ci­nated me.”

“Years later,” she wrote, “when a mu­tual friend gave Wil­liams a copy of the man­u­script for ‘Where Are the Chil­dren?,’ which had just sold to Si­mon & Schus­ter, his com­ment was, ‘I have a lot of friends who can write bet­ter than that,’ so I guess I didn’t fas­ci­nate him ei­ther. We’ll call it a draw.”

Her first novel, “Aspire to the Heav­ens” (1969), was not about a mur­der­ous psy­chopath or a jeal­ous friend bent on bloody re­venge but rather about Ge­orge and Martha Washington. It failed to make a splash but was re­pub­lished in 2002 as “Mount Ver­non Love Story” and joined the other Higgins Clark ti­tles on the best­seller lists.

Si­mon & Schus­ter be­came her pri­mary pub­lisher. Her sec­ond sus­pense novel, “A Stranger Is Watch­ing” (1978), brought in enough money to buy a Cadil­lac.

Mary Higgins Clark

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