Mary Higgins Clark, ‘Queen of Suspense Novels,’  Dies at 92

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(Bloomberg) -- Mary Higgins Clark, the best-selling suspense novelist who captivated readers with intricate plots that swept ordinary people into extraordinary situations, has died. She was 92.

Higgins Clark died Friday of natural causes in Naples, Florida, her publisher, Simon & Schuster announced.

Struggling to support five children after the death of her first husband, Higgins Clark turned to fiction in the mid-1970s to supplement her income and became one of America’s most popular mystery writers. She produced dozens of books that sold more than 100 million copies in the U.S. alone. In 2000, she signed a $64 million contract to write five books for New York-based Simon & Schuster. Several of her works were adapted for feature films and television movies.

“The Queen of Suspense,” as she was known, spun yarns involving unexpected events that spur resilience in their female protagonists, a recurring theme that had its roots in the premature death of her father and the strength of character shown by her mother when adversity struck the family.

‘Menacing Situations’

“Readers identify with my characters,” Higgins Clark said in an interview on her website. “I write about people going about their daily lives, not looking for trouble, who are suddenly plunged into menacing situations.”

Mary Higgins Clark, ‘Queen of Suspense Novels,’  Dies at 92

After selling her first suspense novel, “Where Are the Children?” (1975) for only $3,000, Higgins Clark sold her second one, “A Stranger Is Watching” (1977), for $1.5 million, according to a 1996 article in the New York Times. “Where Are the Children?” was a best-seller about a woman starting a new life after the deaths of her two children.

Murder, abductions and characters with a dark past pervaded her whodunit plots, which also touched on social issues. She weighed in on capital punishment as an innocent man awaited execution in “A Stranger Is Watching,” explored the plight of single mothers in search of their Prince Charming in “A Cry in the Night” (1982), and investigated human cloning in “I’ll Be Seeing You” (1993).

‘Lurking Terror’

Unlike many contemporaries, Higgins Clark shunned sex and explicit violence as a formula to commercial success. Instead, she carved out narratives based on “lurking terror,” as she described it, drawing on elements of an actual crime that she had heard about and mixing in her own personal circumstances. Several books -- including “Remember Me” (1994), “Ghost Ship: A Cape Cod Story” (2007) and “Where Are the Children?” -- were set on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where she had a home. She also had homes in Naples and in Saddle River, New Jersey.

“While her novels continue to give readers just what they have come to expect, they seem anything but formulaic because Clark manages to invent enough twists of plot and character to make each uniquely compelling,” Linda De Roche wrote in “Revisiting Mary Higgins Clark: A Critical Companion” (2003).

Mary Higgins, born Dec. 24, 1927, grew up in the Bronx, New York. Her birth year is sometimes cited as 1929. Her father, Luke Higgins, was an Irish immigrant who owned a pub. He died in his sleep when she was 11. Her mother, Nora Durkin Higgins, had been a bridal buyer in a Manhattan department store before marrying, and raised her three children alone after being widowed.

Father’s Death

“When I said goodnight to my father, I didn’t know it was for the last time,” Higgins Clark said. “His sudden death jolted me into awareness of the fragility of life.”

During her teenage years, she worked as a babysitter and switchboard operator to help her mother financially. The family also rented out a room in their apartment to bring in extra income. Just before her high-school graduation, one of Higgins Clark’s two brothers died while serving in the U.S. Navy in World War II.

After attending secretarial school and working in an advertising agency for three years, Higgins Clark joined Pan American Airlines as a flight attendant on planes to Europe, Africa and Asia. She was on the last flight to Czechoslovakia before the Iron Curtain came down in 1949. She then married Warren Clark, whom she’d known since she was 16. They had three daughters and two sons.

Higgins Clark began her writing career by enrolling in a creative-writing course at New York University, where her professor told her to “write about what you know.” She wrote her first story, “Stowaway,” based on her flight out of Czechoslovakia, and sold it to a magazine for $100.

Another Trauma

In 1964, her husband died of a heart attack and, like her mother, she was left alone to raise her children, then ages 5 to 13. She began to compose radio scripts full-time, and rose at 5 a.m. to write stories. Her first novel, a biographical piece on George Washington, appeared in 1969 under the title “Aspire to the Heavens” but it failed commercially.

At age 49, Higgins Clark earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Fordham University in New York.

Higgins Clark was married to Raymond Ploetz, a Minnesota attorney, from 1978 to 1986. John Conheeney, a former chief executive at Merrill Lynch Futures Inc., became her third husband in 1996; he died in 2018.

She collaborated on several best-selling novels with her second daughter, Carol, who learned the trade while typing her mother’s manuscripts.

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