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Mary Higgins Clark Remembered

by John Aquino on 02/06/20

Mary Higgins Clark, suspense novelist, died on Jan. 31, 2020 at the age of 92. She wrote 51 stand-alone novels, 12 novels in the Alvirah and Willy series with her daughter Carol Higgins Clark, six novels in the Under Suspicious series with co-author Alafair Burke, numerous short stories and radio scripts, two children's books, and a memoir. Her works were adapted for four theatrical movies and 25 television movies. With that output, her writing is very well known. She usually created plots about women living everyday lives who are suddenly caught up in suspenseful situations. In that, she mined some of the same vein as filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, who was also a raised a Catholic. She lacked his edge but provided a warmth that he didn't have (or probably didn't want).

I met her once through her Catholicism. I was a board member of the John Carroll Society, whose members have historically been mostly Catholic attorneys and medical professionals, and in 2004 she spoke at one of the group's Sunday brunches after Mass. The Catholic Standard newspaper didn't have a reporter in attendance, and, since I am a journalist, I was asked if I could write an article for the newspaper freelance on her remarks.

Remembering her on her passing, I am quoting portions of the article here. 

"A nice, Irish, Catholic girl from the Bronx is how I describe myself," mystery novelist Mary Higgins Clark, who is also a Dame of Malta, a Dame of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, and a Dame of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, told the John Carroll Society November 24 at its November brunch. And while she said that she does not feel that it is her role to preach, she believes that her writing is "true to my Catholic faith and upbringing. I don't use sex and violence in my novels. At the end of the evening, my heroines leave their boyfriends at the door. 

Clark said that she is often asked why she chose to be a novelist and always replies that she didn't. "It was decided for me. I think of those legendary godmothers who stand around the cradle and bestow gifts. We're all blessed by God with gifts--some get so many they don't know what to do with them all. Well, the godmother who could have given me the gift of being a great singer--she didn't show up." Neither, Clark said, did the godmothers who could have made her a great dancer, cook, or seamstress. "The one who did show up said, 'You will be a storyteller.'''

Clark was aided in her writing by her heritage--her father was born in Ireland. "If you're going to be a storyteller, it helps to be born into an Irish family." Her natural gift was also supplemented by her life experiences--she became the secretary to an ad agency executive where she learned the advertising business and was also a Pan Am flight attendant--and by her decision to take short story classes at New York University to learn the craft of writing. "It's like a singer who has a voice but has to be trained in how to use it," Clark observed. She was taught to take a true life experience and turn it into fiction by first asking "Suppose…," and second, "What if?" She said she added a third question, "Why?" "I could suppose a situation and ask what if five people had the chance to do the deed, but in suspense stories you need motivation. Why does one person go over the edge and commit the murder?" 

Clark also spoke of perseverance. Her first short story "Stowaway," based on her experience as a flight attendant on the "last Pan Am flight out of Czechoslovakia in 1949" was finally published in 1956--after six years and forty rejection letters. 

Her greatest joy, Clark said, is hearing from young people who say that reading her work made them want to read more and to explore writing. She recalled her own experience in which her mother would encourage her to recite her poems aloud, "Just as you put a glass around a candle flame to protect it from the wind, there are few things greater than kindling and nurturing a child's enthusiasm. If I can help on that path, I'm delighted," Clark said, although she remembers the thirteen-year-old who wrote her saying, "Mrs. Clark, I love your books, even the boring parts."

Those of us who are mystery writers admire your prodigious output and your success, Mary Higgins Clark. God bless you. Rest in peace.

Copyright 2004 and 2020 by John T. Aquino

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