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Mary Higgins Clark, Best-Selling Queen of Suspense, Dies at 92

She became a world-renowned author writing about “nice people whose lives are invaded.”

By Helen T. Verongos, Jan. 31, 2020 in

Mary Higgins Clark, a fixture on best-seller lists for decades whose more than 50 novels earned her the sobriquet Queen of Suspense, died on Friday in Naples, Fla. She was 92.

Her death was confirmed by her daughter Carol Higgins Clark, also a mystery novelist. In addition to Naples, Ms. Higgins Clark had homes in Saddle River, N.J., and Manhattan and on Cape Cod.

Ms. Higgins Clark, whose books have 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 page-turners, 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.

Her heroes were most often female, her villains male, and she said that she wrote about “nice people whose lives are invaded.”

Ms. 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.” Though that formula is “repetitive and predictable,” she added, it works because Ms. Higgins 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.

Ms. Higgins Clark in the mid-1970s. Simon & Schuster, her primary publisher, said that all of her 56 books since “Where Are the Children?,” published in 1975, had been best sellers.
Ms. Higgins Clark in the mid-1970s. Simon & Schuster, her primary publisher, said that all of her 56 books since “Where Are the Children?,” published in 1975, had been best sellers.Credit…PL Gould/Getty Images

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

It was a recipe that Ms. Higgins Clark said she stuck to, with the addition of the question “Why?”

There are, however, two things that won’t be found in her books — sex and profanity — and that choice was deliberate.

In her first successful novel, “Where Are the Children?” (1975), which Ms. Higgins Clark sold for $3,000, a young mother who is 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.

Years later, the secrets of the cutthroat high-end real estate market in New Jersey were among the scariest aspects of “No Place Like Home” (2005), a story about a young woman who tries to distance herself from a painful childhood in which she accidentally killed someone close to her. When her husband surprises her by buying her a dream house, the consequences are nothing short of a nightmare.

Ms. Higgins Clark and her daughter Carol also wrote as a team, producing five holiday-themed crime novels that bring together Mary Higgins Clark’s character Alvirah Meehan and Carol Higgins Clark’s Regan Reilly.

And in recent years she collaborated with Alafair Burke on the “Under Suspicion” series, in which the character Laurie Moran, a producer of true-crime television programs, grapples with mysterious cases. The latest, “You Don’t Own Me,” was published in November 2018.

Ms. Burke, discussing their collaboration, said in a 2016 interview: “Our voices blend quite well. When you read it, you can’t really tell it was written by two people.”

Mary Theresa Eleanor Higgins was born on 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 that Mary had to work harder. To help pay expenses after her father’s death, she got after-school jobs. In one of those jobs, as a switchboard operator at the Shelton Hotel in Manhattan, 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, Ms. 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.’”

She and Warren Clark, from her neighborhood in the Bronx, fell in love, and he proposed on their first date. They determined that she should continue with her plan to become a flight attendant for Pan Am and planned a wedding for the next year, 1949.

Although she had begun pitching her first short stories to confession magazines when she was 16, Ms. Higgins Clark endured a rain of rejection slips for the next several years before she sold her first story, “Stowaway,” to Extension magazine in 1956. By then she had three children: Marilyn, Warren Jr. and David. The fourth, born in 1956, was named Carol for a character in that story. The youngest, Patricia, was born in 1958.

After 14 years of a marriage, Warren Clark, who worked in the shipping and airline industries, died of a heart attack in 1964, when Ms. Higgins Clark was 37. Soon she was looking for a job again, but she did not abandon her fiction writing. She rose before dawn to churn out pages while her children slept, then car-pooled to Manhattan to work at the Gordon R. Tavistock advertising agency.

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 best-seller lists.

Simon & Schuster became her primary publisher. Her second suspense novel, “A Stranger Is Watching” (1978), brought in enough money to buy a Cadillac. In 1979 she achieved another milestone, graduating from Fordham University with a B.A. in philosophy.

As the best sellers piled up, they would sustain her family beyond anything she had ever dreamed possible. In 1988, The New York Times reported that she had broken a record for what was believed to be “the first eight-figure agreement involving a single author.” The multi-book contract guaranteed her at least $10.1 million. “All I have to do now is write the books,” she told The Times.

In a statement on Friday, Simon & Schuster said that all of her 56 books beginning with “Where Are the Children?” had been best sellers.

Michael Korda, editor in chief emeritus of Simon & Schuster, said in the statement that he and Ms. Higgins Clark had worked together since 1975, “during which time we never had a cross word between us, which surely sets something of a record for author-editor relationships.”

Two of her books were adapted for film and many others for television movies, including some in which she played minor characters. She also wrote children’s books and short stories, and her recipe for Game Night Chili can be found in “The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook.”

Ms. Higgins Clark married twice after she was widowed. Her brief second marriage — in 1978, to Raymond Charles Ploetz, a lawyer — is glossed over in her memoir as a mistake. The marriage was annulled, and in 1996 she married John Conheeney, a former Merrill Lynch executive whom she celebrated in the dedications of several books. He died in October 2018. Her five children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren survive her.

Even into her 90s, Ms. Higgins Clark continued to address her fans in online videos, appearing elegantly dressed and accessorized with glittering gems. (She liked to buy jewelry now and then, she said, to celebrate her accomplishments.)

In one video, Ms. Higgins Clark, who was grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Manhattan in 2011, discussed the role of the Irish narrative heritage in her work and her legacy.

“Let others decide whether or not I’m a good writer,” she said. “I know I’m a good Irish storyteller.”

Michael Levenson and Matthew Sedacca contributed reporting.

Helen T. Verongos is a senior staff editor on the Culture Desk. She is a former assistant editor of international news and a former deputy editor of the Continuous News Desk.

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