Mary Higgins Clark brings mystery to Wilton
The voice is unmistakable on the phone. Yet she isn’t known for her voice. Mary Higgins Clark is regarded as the Queen of Suspense, a title she holds dearly for the 32 best-selling mystery novels she has written.
Her latest, Daddy’s Gone a Hunting, has gone straight to the top of the literary best sellers list. It is a place she has resided with regularity.
She laughs because she is recognized from her countless appearances on Don Imus’s nationally syndicated radio show, where Ms. Clark and her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark, frequently show off their charm and humor.
“I love him,” she said of Mr. Imus. “You know what you’re getting into when you go there. You’re stepping into the lion’s cage and he has no interest in a love fest.”
Ms. Clark will be appearing on Friday evening, May 3, at Wilton Library from 7 to 8:30 to discuss her latest work and her career. There is no charge but registration is essential, says the library. (Call 203-762-3950, ext. 213, or visit wiltonlibrary.org and click on events.)
“I don’t do much traveling around the country anymore,” she said. “It’s nice to go to where the people actually are. Connecticut is always on the list to visit. I love it there. I’ve set some of my books in Danbury, Ridgefield and Newtown. My uncle started the Danbury Inn in the early 1930s.”
Her career is one that began due to circumstances. Born Mary Higgins in Manhattan in 1927, she was raised in the Bronx. Her father died when she was 11, bringing hardship to her family. After high school, she helped the family by working as a secretary and in an advertising agency. Eventually, she spent a year working for Pan American Airlines as a flight attendant before marrying Warren Clark in 1949. The Clarks had five children and Ms. Clark stayed busy by writing short stories.
The idyllic life took a terrible turn in 1964 when Warren Clark died of a heart attack. By this point, Ms. Clark was working as a writer for a syndicated radio series, called “Portrait of a Patriot.”
“I wrote for Betsy Palmer, Bess Myerson, Betty White, Bill Cullen, Peggy Cass, and Hugh Downs,” she said. “It was tailored to the sponsor.”
The four-minute vignettes would build like a mystery, until the answer was revealed.
“I did a birthday show with Betty White,” she said. “A beauty show with Lee Meriwether. Name the subject and I would write about it.”
This experience led her to trying book writing. She would get up every morning at 5 and write until 7, when she had to get her children ready for school. Her first book, a biographical novel about George Washington called Aspire to the Heavens, was released in 1969. It was re-released in 2002 under the title Mount Vernon Love Story.
Her financial worries would end with the publication of her first suspense novel, Where Are the Children?, in 1974. Phyllis Grann, an editor at Simon & Schuster, bought the book for $3,000. The paperback rights would soon sell for much more.
Around that time, she began working with editor Michael Korda, a resident of Dutchess County, N.Y. That is a relationship that continues to this day.
“I’ll be having lunch with Michael later this week at our favorite restaurant to talk about the plot for the next book,” she said. “I won’t tell it because it’s still too vague, but it would concern a television show and the people who are on it.”
She said they never have disagreements but that they do exchange ideas.
“One time I gave him a whole book, Weep No More My Lady. He wrote ‘Mary, the book is wonderful. The first 50 pages, Charles Dickens could have written in one sentence.’ He was absolutely right. I had fed too much information about the characters. If you go to a cocktail party and you meet someone, if you get interested in them, then you’re interested to hear that they live in Pleasant Valley and they ride horses. You don’t want to hear the rest of their life story.
“I was feeding people’s life story in the first 50 pages before you had a chance to care about them.”
Proud of her success, Ms. Clark said, is that she reads her reviews, and she also indicated that anyone who doesn’t care about what a review says “is lying.” Each new book is important to her, including her latest work, Daddy’s Gone A Hunting.
“It’s like having a new baby,” she said. “You count the fingers and toes. You do not take it for granted. Publishers Weekly did not give a good review. I was terribly surprised because I thought it was a strong story. So of course to see it reach No. 1? ‘Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord!’”
A fascinating woman of diverse interests who lives in New Jersey with her husband, John Conheeney, she was once a part owner of the New Jersey Nets.
“The kids loved it,” she said. “We had seats right behind Jay Z and Beyoncé. John and the kids loved it. I was a very popular grandmother.”
Her current book is set in her home state, which is part of a mission for her.
“I get so sick of hearing people insult New Jersey,” she said. I’m in Saddle River, where it’s absolutely beautiful. People only think of the turnpike. So I try to educate people that New Jersey is better than that.”
Daddy’s Gone A Hunting follows a dark secret in the past of two sisters. A family-owned firm explodes into flames, critically injuring one sister. The book follows the path to resolve several mysteries around the sisters, the explosion, and their family.
The Queen of Suspense says she loves her readers.
“I value my readers very much,” she said. “They have supported me for many years. I do my utmost to give them a story every year. As for being a celebrity, that’s in a corner of my life. I’m very grateful to the kindness of the many people who approach me.
“I take that very seriously. It’s an obligation to tell a good story.”