The Queen of Suspense: Mary Higgins Clark

One of the most memorable highlights of the five years I lived in London took place one sunny summer afternoon when I was invited to Buckingham Palace to have tea with the Queen of England. Okay, I was one of 10,000 people who also attended that garden party, though you wouldn’t have guessed—the Queen has a huge backyard. To this day, the mystique and allure of royalty and the royal life fascinate me. So when the folks at Criminal Element asked if I would write about the Mary Higgins Clark Award, I knew I wanted to write about royalty—how did Mary Higgins Clark become America’s beloved “Queen of Suspense” and remain so for decades?

Mystery Writers of America, Simon & Schuster, and Mary Higgins Clark have a relationship that goes back more than 30 years. Honored as MWA’s Grandmaster in 2000, Higgins Clark also served as president in 1987 and as a member of the Board of Directors for many years. So in the fall of 2000, when Simon & Schuster—her longtime publisher—proposed an award in her honor, it was logical that the Simon & Schuster Mary Higgins Clark Award would be presented during Edgar Week and that its indefatigable namesake, who turned ninety last Christmas Eve, would present it herself.

The award recognizes a book that hews to a set of guidelines described as “the Mary Higgins Clark tradition,” which means that the protagonist must be an independent, self-made woman with an interesting career—someone you’d want for a friend—who is going about her business when “something cuts across her bow.” No one rescues her; she resolves the situation with courage and intelligence, and the story is told without gratuitous violence, explicit sex, or profanity. This year—along with Hallie Ephron, Carol Goodman, Nadine Nettmann, and Lori Rader-Day—I am one of the lucky 2018 nominees, and I am pinching myself because I have read and loved Higgins Clark’s books for decades.

Like me, Mary Higgins Clark’s writing career began later in life—she didn’t publish a book until she was in her early 40s; I was, err, a bit older. But unlike me, every single book she has written beginning with Where Are the Children? in 1975 has been a hit-out-of-the-park-homerun bestseller.

We also have something else—actually, someone—in common. Wendell Minor, an artist and illustrator who will be receiving the Norman Rockwell Museum’s Laureate Artist Award in June, designed the book covers for Higgins Clark’s first six mysteries as well as two recent children’s books; he also designed covers for six of my mysteries published by Pocket Books.

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to get to know Wendell, so at his invitation, I called him at his home in Connecticut to talk about Mary Higgins Clark. The two of them are now good friends.

“She’s a good storyteller and one of the greatest people you’ll ever meet,” he said. “She’s so down to earth—a Bronx girl—someone who is very well grounded.  She’s also consistent in that she’s got a formula for her stories that works so well she’s garnered fans in the next generation because teenagers are reading her books now.”

Minor has designed some of the book world’s most iconic covers for such authors as Harper Lee, James Michener, Pat Conroy, Toni Morrison, David McCullough, and Larry McMurtry. In 1995, he published Art for the Written Word: Twenty-Five Years of Book Cover Art, which included the jackets of two Mary Higgins Clark books: Where Are the Children? and Stillwatch.

“The cover of a book is an invitation into that book,” Higgins Clark wrote in an essay for Art for the Written Word. “[It] is, in essence, the first line of the book.”

Minor, who reads every book before he illustrates it, has been known to remember story details better than the author does. (You can absolutely take my word for that).

“Frank Metz, the art director at Simon & Schuster, came to me with Where Are the Children? and said, ‘Here’s a story set on Cape Cod and you know the Cape,’ ” Minor said. “So I read it and decided to do a very Hopperesque painting, with that little red mitten in the front yard. It was Mary’s first book, but that paperback sold a million copies.”

Minor suggested I talk to Michael Korda, Higgins Clark’s editor for every book except the first, if I wanted to know more about how she consistently manages to write bestseller after bestseller.

Michael Korda / Photo by Lars Lonninge.

Korda, who was Simon & Schuster’s Editor-in-Chief from 1968 until 2005 and a prolific author in his own right, called me on a rainy Sunday afternoon. “Mary has a very intense relationship with her readers,” he said. “She knows what they will and won’t accept … what they want. Invariably she’s right.”

Although Higgins Clark now has another in-house editor at S&S—Marysue Rucci—it is Michael Korda who initially sits down with her and tosses around ideas each time she begins a new book.

“There might be something in the news that I read about that I think might interest her,” he said. “I call it the MacGuffin. Just as Alfred Hitchcock always had a central concept for his movies, it needs to be something that can be distilled into a sentence. Mary decides whether she likes the idea and can build on it, whether it will work for a Mary Higgins Clark novel and especially for her readers.”

Once Higgins Clark has decided what the book is going to be about, she starts putting the plot together and creating characters. “Mary has a good feel for sympathetic characters,” Korda said, “including her villains, who also tend to be sympathetic. As a result, it’s harder to figure out who did it in one of her books.”

After Higgins Clark starts writing, she’ll fax Korda pages at the end of each day. No e-mail, no track changes; Korda says they have been faxing pages to each other since the beginning and the system works. After he edits the daily pages, he returns them to Higgins Clark as well as to Marysue Rucci.

“Because Mary has such a tight deadline writing a book a year, she can be working on the middle and end of a book when galleys for the beginning will show up,” Korda said. “After she reviews my notes and Marysue’s, her pages go directly to the copy editor.”

This, frankly, horrifies me. My own process can involve revisions of revisions of revisions. How does she do it?

Korda let me in on her secret, though it’s really no secret after all. “Mary always knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s consistent, she loves writing, and she enjoys her book as much as her readers do. Once she’s finished writing, she loves publicizing it and the contact with her readers. She listens to them and cares about her readers and what they have to say. In a word, she’s exceptional.”

Or as Wendell Minor said, “I can’t think of another mystery writer on this side of the pond who is as timeless and enduring as Mary Higgins Clark.”

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