In Remembrance: Mary Higgins Clark
By John ValeriFebruary 4, 2020
It’s not an exaggeration to say that my heart broke a bit with the news that Mary Higgins Clark, America’s “Queen of Suspense,” died last Friday at the age of 92.
Any time a person passes who has been part of your life for as long as she was mine, the loss is profound. And if social media is any indication, readers and writers the world over are feeling the same, or similar, sentiments. Not only are people celebrating her astonishing literary legacy—each of her 56 books was a bestseller, with more than 100 million copies currently in print in the United States alone—but her genuine and generous influence on a more personal level.
My story, then, is simply one that illustrates a much larger phenomenon.
I first “met” Mary in the early-1990s, when I was transitioning from an all-consuming obsession with Nancy Drew to “adult” mystery novels. Books were my drug of choice (and, often, my closest companions), and Nancy the gateway—but Mary Higgins Clark provided the hit that made me a lifelong addict.
I still remember that first book, the one that hooked me: All Around the Town. It was a mass-market paperback, found at a garage sale while my mom scavenged for teacups. Everything about it appealed to me—the subtly sinister vibe of the title, the cover image of a bloody handprint sullying otherwise pristine drapery, the copy blurb promising a shocking murder in a college town.
The book delivered on its promise, and I began collecting other titles. First came used paperbacks from tag sales and secondhand bookshops. Then, there were book club editions that were affordable but drab. And finally, first edition hardcovers bought directly from retailers.
The publication of Moonlight Becomes You (1996, was it?) began an annual tradition that has largely continued: going to the bookstore—or the local Stop & Shop—on release day to grab a copy and immediately immersing myself in it.
In addition to sharing these books with my several-years-older cousin (well, until her cat used one as a scratching post), I used to swap them with my middle school home economics teacher, Mrs. S. She, in turn, introduced me to the charms of Diane Mott Davidson. (Fitting, no?) The fact that a teenager, a twenty-something, and a fifty-something were all perfectly happy with the same book(s) is a clear indication of Mary’s appeal.
This would be reaffirmed again and again in future years, when I would attend book signings and see entire generations of families, from grandchildren to grandparents, out in force, waiting to meet their favorite author.
As for the appeal of the books themselves? I’d say readers are drawn to the following: the strong female protagonists, the unspeakable nature of the crimes, and the ultimate restorations of justice. Further, though Mary wrote about murder, mayhem, and other mysteries of humankind, there was no gratuitous content. Her storytelling—no doubt inspired by her Irish upbringing—was pure and compelling in and of itself; there was no need for graphic language, sex, or violence to grab readers’ attention. Consequently, the books were safe for sharing.
After a few years of reading her backlist, I finally worked up the courage to write Mary a fan letter. While the finer points are lost to memory, I can only assume that it was both a proclamation of my undying love and devotion and of my intent to become one of the legions of writers to follow in her footsteps. (Read: I don’t only adore you, but I want to be you.)
Regardless of any red flags this may have raised, I received a handwritten reply on Mary’s personal stationery thanking me for my support and encouraging my own creative pursuits a few weeks later. I cherish this note as much now—and maybe more so—than I did then.
Meeting Mary in person wouldn’t happen until 2007, when she and her daughter, fellow novelist Carol Higgins Clark, came to nearby Foxwoods Casino on a book tour. In one of those ironic twists of fate, my then-fiancée (and now wife) was interning there and got tasked with interviewing them beforehand—never mind that, as of then, she hadn’t read any of their books.
So I did what any good husband-to-be would and helped her develop a set of interview questions, all the while trying to contain my jealousy. I didn’t get backstage the night of the event—college interns only have so much sway—but I did get to meet both Mary (dazzlingly bejeweled and impeccably coiffed) and Carol in the signing line following their public discussion. They were equally delightful, asked all about our wedding and honeymoon plans, and freely offered up their own sage advice. You would have thought, for those brief moments, that we were the only people in the room.
Much as I might have liked to think this attention was special to us, it wasn’t. The Clarks greeted each and every reader with the same energy and enthusiasm regardless of the amount of time that had passed, the quantity of books signed, and the number of pictures posed for.
It was a scene I’d watch unfold several times in the years ahead, and one I’d always marvel at. Despite the absolute enormity of her success, Mary Higgins Clark took the time to make each reader feel appreciated and important, as if she was writing books just for them. Which, in a way, she was.
A few other observations from these appearances. Mary never shied away from sharing her own failures when it served to motivate others—and seemed to take delight in recalling an early rejection that called her work “light, slight, and trite.” (Who got the last laugh here?) As technology changed, she embraced the evolution and would happily take selfies with fans and sign Kindle covers. And when she goofed up an inscription, she would always correct the mistake and draw a little doodle to make the book (more) unique. (I have, and have gifted, a few of these treasures.)
The inscriptions themselves were equally memorable. While many authors of her stature don’t personalize books or have a standard, go-to message (“Best Wishes,” “Warm Regards,” etc.), Mary would good-naturedly oblige special requests. She once signed a book: “Dear John beats John Doe.” Another time, she wrote that the book’s dedication—“For John,” in reference to her husband, John Conheeney—was actually an allusion to me. And then there was the occasion that I had her inscribe a book to Marcia Clark in which she wrote as if I had mistakenly found myself in her signing line, hoping to meet the famed prosecutor instead.
As I began reviewing books and profiling authors, I had the opportunity to interview Mary and Carol, both together and separately. They treated each interaction as if it was the equivalent of being featured in the New York Times rather than the Hartford Books Examiner and expressed genuine gratitude despite knowing their investments of time and thought were more likely to benefit me than them.
One of my favorite memories is of the time we did a phone interview in advance of a local signing event. Carol helped to arrange the logistics and suggested that I call them over that weekend, when they would both be at Mary’s Saddle River, NJ home, and unhesitatingly provided the private house number. When I rang, they each picked up a line and greeted me like an old friend—but soon decided to take turns chatting with me privately so that the conversation wouldn’t spoil any plot points, as they hadn’t yet had time to read each other’s forthcoming books.
And, less than two years ago, I had one of those career-defining, full-circle moments when I again got to interview Mary, this time about her collaboration with Alafair Burke, for a feature profile in the nationally distributed Mystery Scene Magazine. Of all the articles I’ve pitched and produced, this one gave me a particular sense of pride and fulfillment because it allowed me to honor the woman who was largely responsible for my entry into the world of crime fiction on an appropriately grand scale.
Mary Higgins Clark was not just a writer. She was a passionate ambassador of the genre and a tireless cheerleader of future generations. Her influence cannot be overstated, nor the enormity of the loss. Our Queen may be gone, but her reign is eternal.