Mary Higgins Clark, who as a widowed mother of five in her 40s began a long reign as one of the most successful crime writers of all time, pouring out novel after novel about resilient women befallen by unnatural deaths, disappearances and wicked crimes, died Friday in Naples, Fla. She was 92.
Known to her legions of fans as the “Queen of Suspense,” Clark was an almost instant sensation with the publication in 1975 of her first thriller, “Where Are the Children?” The story centered on a mother who, not for the first time, must prove her innocence when her children go missing.
Clark, who until then had struggled alone to support her family, described herself in that moment as a “prospector stumbling on a vein of gold.”
She wrote dozens of novels that sold tens of millions of copies in hard copy, in paperback and in translation. Few if any critics placed her writing in the category of high literature. But Clark had discovered a crowd-pleasing, and profitable, formula for crime fiction.
After selling her first book for $3,000, she collected $1.5 million, including paperback rights, for her second novel, “A Stranger Is Watching” (1977), about a kidnapping in New York City’s Grand Central Station.
In 2000, after generous advances over the years, Simon and Schuster awarded Clark a $64 million contract for five books. The deal made her, per volume, the highest paid female writer in the world, the New York Times reported.
Her books were practically guaranteed to be page-turners from their covers, which often were emblazoned with the words “MARY HIGGINS CLARK” in type larger than the font used for their titles.
They included “The Cradle Will Fall” (1980), about a sinister obstetrician-gynecologist; “Loves Music, Loves to Dance” (1991), about a killer who stalks the personal ads; “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” (1995), about a plastic surgeon who modifies his patients’ faces to resemble the visage of a murdered woman; and “Daddy’s Gone A Hunting” (2013), a dark tale of family secrets.
Short stories, kids’ books
In addition to her novels, Clark wrote short stories, children’s books and a memoir, “Kitchen Privileges,” that recounted a life marked by hardship, including the loss at a young age of her father and the deaths of two brothers. Like many of her fictional heroines, she overcame adversity with plucky self-reliance.
A typical Mary Higgins Clark protagonist was a self-possessed professional woman whose life, through no fault of her own, was struck by evil. “My people are never looking for trouble,” the author once told the Times. “… I write about nice people whose lives are in danger.” Her narratives, while not often lauded for their subtlety, were highly readable.
Clark extensively researched the topics addressed in her fiction. She attended murder trials and confirmed medical terminology with doctors. Many of her plotlines were inspired by crimes in the news. Once, she told the Washington Post, she heard a broadcast in Chicago about a man who had hidden in a couple’s attic for a month. When eventually he ambushed the woman, he repeated to her the conversations he overheard in the bedroom she shared with her husband.
“Imagine the terror of that — a man who comes in and out of the attic and eavesdrops,” she said. “Such a marvelous idea!”
Mary Theresa Eleanor Higgins was born Dec. 24, 1927, in the Bronx.
As a teenager, she worked as a telephone operator at a hotel where she said she listened in on the conversations of a then-unknown playwright, Tennessee Williams.