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Mary Higgins Clark, Mystery Novelist Dubbed ‘Queen of Suspense,’ Dies at 92

Today, more than 100 million copies of her books are in print in the United States alone

The beloved "Queen of Suspense" died Friday at age 92. (Photo by Dan Hallman / Invision / AP)
smithsonianmag.com

In 1964, Mary Higgins Clark lost her husband to a heart attack. She had five children and, because her husband’s illness had been chronic, was unable to collect life insurance. Higgins Clark began working at an advertising agency to support the family, but in the early mornings, while her children were still asleep, she carved out time for her true passion: writing.

Her first book, a historical novel about George Washington, was a flop. But in 1975, Higgins Clark struck gold with Where Are the Children?, a thriller that follows a young mother who rebuilds her life after her two children are found dead; she gets remarried and starts another family, only to have her second set of children disappear. Higgins Clark would go on to write dozens of best-selling novels. Today, more than 100 million copies of her books are in print in the United States alone.

On January 31, Higgins Clark’s long-time publisher, Simon & Schuster, announced that the author—known as the “Queen of Suspense” to her legions of devoted fans—had died of “natural causes” at the age of 92.

“[E]ach of her 56 books has been a bestseller,” says the statement. “But these storied publishing accomplishments tell only a small part of the larger story that is Mary Higgins Clark. She was, simply, a remarkable woman who overcame an early life of hardship and challenges, never doubting her ability as a natural-born storyteller (and she was one for the ages).”

Mary Theresa Eleanor Higgins was born in the Bronx in 1927. Her father, according to Helen T. Verongos of the New York Times, was an Irish immigrant who operated a pub before the Great Depression. He died when Higgins Clark was 11, and just a few years later, she lost her older brother, too. To help out with expenses, Higgins Clark took after-school jobs, including working as a switchboard operator at the Shelton Hotel in Manhattan. She was in the habit of eavesdropping on the hotel’s guests—among them Tennessee Williams.

“I didn’t hear anything that fascinated me,” Higgins Clark once wrote of the playwright’s conversations, according to Verongos.

She later worked as a flight attendant with Pan American World Airways, a job that took her across the globe, reports Emily Langer of the Washington Post. In 1949, she married longtime acquaintance Warren Clark and started a family.

Higgins Clark had been writing stories since she was a teenager, but it was not until 1956 that she succeeded in publishing one of them: Stowaway, which follows a flight attendant who finds a member of the Czech underground hiding on her plane, sold to Extension magazine for $100. Almost two more decades passed before Higgins Clark’s career began to skyrocket, during which time she lost her husband of 14 years.

Where Are the Children? sold for $3,000 in 1975. By 1988, Higgins Clark had signed a $10.1 million book deal with Simon & Schuster, which was then “thought to be the first eight-figure agreement involving a single author,” according to the Times.

The protagonists of the mystery writer’s best-selling narratives are often women who find themselves sucked into tense, nightmarish situations. In All Around the Town, a 21-year-old student (who, as it happens, was “kidnapped at the age of four and victimized for two years”) is accused of murdering her English professor. A pregnant woman unravels her husband’s dark past in A Cry in the Night. And in The Cradle Will Fall, a county prosecutor observes a possible crime from her hospital window.

Explaining her approach to the Times in 1997, Higgins Clark said she wrote about “nice people whose lives are invaded.”

In recent years, Higgins Clark crafted a number of stories in collaboration with daughter Carol Higgins Clark, who is also a mystery writer, and crime novelist Alafair Burke. She was known for being gracious to her fans, keeping them updated about her projects on social media and “going out of her way to meet them while on tour for every one of her books,” says Michael Korda, editor-in-chief emeritus of Simon & Schuster, in the statement.

Her work was not considered high-brow, but Higgins Clark had a keen sense of what her audiences wanted to read—“and, perhaps more important, what they didn’t want to read,” per Korda.

“That is the greatest compliment I can get, when someone will say to me, ‘I read your darn book till 4 in the morning,’” Higgins Clark told NPR’s Lynn Neary in 2017. “I say, ‘Then you got your money’s worth.’”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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