Mary Higgins Clark was the prolific and best-selling “Queen of Suspense.” Her dozens of suspense novels include “A Stranger Is Watching,” “While My Pretty One Sleeps,” and “Loves Music, Loves to Dance.”
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Died: January 31, 2020 (Who else died on January 31?)
Details of death: Died in Naples, Florida at the age of 92.
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Higgins Clark became an overnight sensation with the publication of 1975’s “Where Are the Children?” Written while she was struggling financially and initially meeting indifference from her publisher, the book exploded with its paperback publication, becoming a best-seller and launching a career filled with successes.
Though she dreamed of literary fame and fortune from a young age, it didn’t initially look as if it would be in the cards for Higgins Clark. Born Dec. 24, 1927, in the Bronx, New York, to parents of Irish ancestry, she wrote stories as a schoolgirl, but when the time came for her to enter the working world as a young adult, she chose a more practical use for her skills with words. With a secretarial degree to her credit, she started a job writing catalog copy for the typewriter and computer manufacturer Remington Rand.
Not much time passed before wanderlust overtook Higgins Clark. She embarked on a new career that she enjoyed reminiscing about in later years: She became a flight attendant with Pan American Airlines. It was 1949, and as Higgins Clark later told CNBC, “That was extremely glamorous in those days. I mean, flying was still so new.” She traveled all over the world on Pan Am’s international routes, finding excitement in the jet-setting lifestyle. One flight she served was the last one allowed into Czechoslovakia before the Iron Curtain closed its borders. The work was thrilling, but she left it behind for marriage, to Warren Clark.
In a decade and a half of marriage, the couple had five children. Meanwhile, Higgins Clark began taking writing classes and returned to writing short stories as she had done in her youth. Offers for publication were few and far between, though Higgins Clark continued to hone her craft. But when Warren died in 1964, leaving her a young widow with five mouths to feed, Higgins Clark had to get serious about making a writing career work.
She began working as a radio scriptwriter, but her ambition was to write novels. Her first long-form foray was a fictionalized tale of George and Martha Washington titled “Aspire to the Heavens,” and though it found a publisher, it tanked upon publication.
Higgins Clark needed a new focus, one that would energize her writing and capture her readers’ attention. For inspiration, she turned to her own bookshelf, finding a useful theme: “I realized I loved suspense more than any other subject,” she told CNBC. “I’d always been reading thrillers and knew why the good authors work and their stories work and why others don’t work.”
She applied this instinct to her own writing, beginning with the book that would become “Where Are the Children?” A suspenseful tale of a woman with a secret and two children in danger, it was a best-seller in paperback and gave Higgins Clark a smooth entry into the publishing world, with a $1.5 million contract for book No. 2. Higgins Clark was 48 when she published her first book.
That second book was 1977’s “A Stranger Is Watching,” a tale of a man with a secret, and a woman and child in danger. Higgins herself acknowledged that there was a certain formula to her work.
“In my case, it’s always a woman, a young woman,” she told CNBC. “Smart, intelligent, and something happens. She’s not on the wrong side of town at 4 in the morning. She’s living her life and something crosses it. And by her own intelligence, she works her way out of it.” Her harsher critics bemoaned the repeated formula, but the technique brought fans back for more – over and over.
As a popular novelist whose works were particularly associated with female readers, Higgins Clark endured her share of dismissal by the more literary critical set. Over the years, she learned to let it roll off, appreciating her fans for the praise they offered. But bad reviews can’t always be ignored, and Higgins Clark told Writers Write that she sometimes turned the frustration of a bad review into a personal game: “I found out what the reviewer looked like, and I intend to make him the villain in my next novel! … That’s one of the joys of being a writer. You can take out all your frustrations in fiction, and remain a perfectly lovely person in real life.”
Higgins Clark wrote more than 50 novels, often following the winning formula even as she occasionally collaborated with writers including her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark, as well as with the crime novelist Alafair Burke. In 2001, Higgins Clark published her memoir, “Kitchen Privileges.” More than a dozen of her novels were adapted into screenplays for movies and television films. She continued writing into her 90s, most recently publishing “Kiss the Girls and Make them Cry” in 2019.
Higgins Clark was known for her long and enduring professional relationship with her editor, Michael Korda, with whom she worked on all but her first two books. She fleshed out book ideas with Korda, then sent him her drafts chapter by chapter, editing as she went along for an efficient process.
Higgins Clark’s legacy includes the Mary Higgins Clark Award, an annual honor given by the Mystery Writers of America to the year’s best suspense writing. Higgins Clark was past president and a member of the board of directors of the Mystery Writers of America, and her honors include the Horatio Alger Award, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and membership in the Irish America Hall of Fame.
What people said about her: “Heartbroken. A generous mentor, hero, colleague and friend. She taught me so much. I’ll always be grateful.” —author Harlen Coben
“Mary Higgins Clark was a class act. I’ll always treasure the publishing advice she gave me. Ride out the rough patches and don’t get greedy. My heart goes out to her lovely family.” —author Christopher Rice
“So sad to hear that Mary Higgins Clark has passed. She was a master mystery writer and her books have been part of my life for as long as I can remember.” —author Mandy Hale
Full obituary: The New York Times