Mary Higgins Clark died at the age of 92 from complications related to old age on January 31, 2020. Each of her 56 novels was a bestseller and her novels have sold more than 100 million copies in the US alone. Her last novel was Kiss the Girls and Make them Cry, published in November 2019, about a journalist investigating sexual misconduct and murder at a high-profile television news network.

Dubbed the “Queen of Suspense”, Clark’s novels often portrayed women and “nice people whose lives were invaded”. It is perhaps not surprising that her favourite writers were Mary Roberts Rinehart, Agatha Christie, Charlotte Armstrong and Josephine Tey. The swift pace of her novels depended on tight plots, shocking twists and modern psychopathologies, making them reliable page turners.

The suspense that she was famous for building up through the narrative was contingent on provoking her reader’s curiosity, which she did time and again by drawing one into her characters’ peril and eventual triumph. She neatly delineated conflicts, foregoing detailed character studies and articulations of postmodern angst for lucid depictions of evil. Like her important predecessor, Agatha Christie, Clark’s novels too had morally unambiguous heroes and villains.

For the same reason, Clark’s novels never contained sex or profanities or violence, making them accessible to a diverse group of readers, ranging from a book-starved teenager to a restless flight passenger.

Resilient writer

Clark’s public appearances belied her humble beginnings. Therese Eleanor Higgins was born in 1927 in the Bronx, New York. In Kitchen Privileges: A Memoir, she recounted how her mother had put up the innocuous sign: “Furnished Room. Kitchen Privileges”, so that the family could make ends meet after her father’s death when she was only 11.

Later, she went to secretarial school and worked as a Pan American Airlines stewardess, and travelled to exotic locations before marrying Warren Clark and having five children with him. She wrote radio scripts to support him when he developed heart disease and after his sudden death, she found herself in the same position as her own mother. Against these great odds, she continued to write short stories and completed her first novel, Aspire to the Heavens, based on George and Martha Washington. It was, however, a commercial disaster.

Like her own resilient heroines, she would strenuously write from 5 am to 7 am before getting her five children ready for school. Heeding her agent’s advice and realising that she enjoyed the genre of mystery novels the most, she wrote her first suspense novel, Where are the Children? in 1975, and sold it to Simon & Schuster.

In the novel, Nancy Harmon changes her name and moves to quiet Cape Cod to break with her horrible past where she had been accused of murdering her two children. Nancy remarries a strong handsome man and has two children; however, things go awry when they go missing too. The suspense builds to a crescendo as we confront Nancy with the question that everyone keeps asking her: Where are the children?

Alafair Burke, with whom she collaborated for a series of books, described this characteristic style in these terms:

“While one half of her brain contemplates the antagonist’s next terrifying move, the other half imagines how the protagonist will react to her child’s fears. She can recite quotidian details in the lives of every character, whether those facts make it to the page or not.”

A game-changer in the genre, Where are the Children? pitted the vulnerability of her heroine Nancy against masculine violence and psychological trauma, while at the same time affirming Nancy’s adamant will to survive. The novel was based on the real-life case of Alice Crimmins, a housewife who was convicted twice of murdering her children. Clark would often pick up such ideas for her novels from newspapers and tabloids.

Personal suspense

Often her novels were more personal than domestic as the hero confronted her tragic past or a personal enemy or forgotten grief through the sudden danger that the crime presented. Clark would gesture to these hidden depths of her characters which they seldom admitted or wanted to discuss in an attempt to humanise them as a font of their resolute resourcefulness and sheer desperation.

In Moonlight Becomes You (1996), Maggie Holloway visits her stepmother in rich Newport society. On her stepmother’s violent death Maggie realises that she is the beneficiary of the old woman’s will but is also an exposed target for the murderer. Clark’s novels are not conventional mystery novels with puzzles or the quest for the criminal at its centre. In her “personal suspense novels”, the hero remains at the heart of the story.

She is getting along with her life when it is abruptly interrupted by menace and danger. The suspense thrives on the fear and uncertainty that looms over the character’s fate and also the minute possibility of escape and survival. This cinematic sequence of suspense in her novels also made them perfect for adaptations for film and television.

She undoubtedly had a winning formula but she was also a natural storyteller who could skilfully manipulate the plot to reveal unexpected twists and turns which would grip the reader. Compared to Sue Grafton’s hardboiled Kinsey Milhone or the sultry anti-hero of Stieg Larsson, Clark’s novels were often classified as “cozy mystery” for their tameness. But as her editor at Simon & Schuster since 1975, Michael Korda, once said: “Mary’s great genius is that she writes for but also thinks like her readers, and predicts what her readers will accept and what they won’t. Mary is very certain about what they want and what she wants.”

She was named Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in France in 2000 and won the Authors Guild Foundation award for Distinguished Services to the Literary Community in 2018. She was also the recipient of 18 honorary doctorates and an annual Mary Higgins Clark Award is sponsored by Simon & Schuster and has been given to writers of suspense fiction since 2001. She was also inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame in 2011.

Clark is survived by five children including the mystery novelist Carol Higgins Clark, six grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. In Kitchen Privileges she had once concluded, “if you want to be happy for a year, win the lottery. To be happy for life, love what you do.”