Simon & Schuster president Carolyn Reidy said that Higgins Clark died on 31 January in Naples, Florida, from complications of old age. The author published her first novel, Where Are the Children? in 1975, going on to sell more than 100m copies of her compulsive suspense novels in the US alone. She published her most recent thriller, Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry, about a journalist investigating sexual misconduct at a television news network, in November.
Crime author Alafair Burke, who collaborated with Higgins Clark on the Under Suspicion series, said she would “miss my friend and co-author, but consider myself one of the luckiest people around to have had the chance to tell stories with one of my favourite writers, the Queen of Suspense.
“Through it all, I marvelled at Mary’s kindness, loyalty, and utter devotion to the work of being a writer. She could write me under the table, insisting we could get a few more pages in when I felt a snack break coming,” said Burke on Twitter. “When we went to an outdoor book festival in August, I kept sneaking off to the air-conditioned ladies’ room, but Mary stayed at the table and posed in the heat for selfies long after the books had sold out.”
Higgins Clark’s fellow authors spoke of her generosity, especially to new writers. Harlan Coben said he was heartbroken to learn of Higgins Clark’s death, describing her as “a generous mentor, hero, colleague, and friend” who “taught me so much”. Laura Lippman called her a trailblazer, adding that “so many of us owe our careers to her”. Scott Turow said she was “an extraordinarily gracious person, unpretentious and remarkably generous in a hundred ways”.
In her memoir, Kitchen Privileges, Higgins Clark wrote of “aching, yearning, burning” to write when she was young. It was an achievement made in the face of heavy odds. Her father died when she was 11, and she went to secretarial school after graduating from high school in the Bronx in New York. She went on to work as an air stewardess. After flying for a year, she married Warren Clark, who she had known since she was 16. She sold her first short story in 1956, for $100. After Clark died in 1964, she began writing radio scripts for a living, while also trying her hand as a novelist. She would write from 5am to 7am, before getting her five children ready for school.
“My mother’s belief in me kept alive my dream to be a writer. My father’s early death left her with three young children to support. A generation later my husband’s early death left me in exactly that position, except that I had five children,” she wrote.
“Mother supported us by renting rooms, allowing our paying guests to have the privilege of preparing light meals in the kitchen. I supported my family by writing radio shows. Very early in the morning I put my typewriter on the kitchen table before I went to work in Manhattan and spent a few privileged and priceless hours working on my first novel.”
She sold Where Are the Children? when she was 47. Telling of a young mother who has fled her original life after the death of her first two children, only for her next two to disappear, it was a huge hit. David Foster Wallace taught it in his college classes, and Coben recalled a letter from the Infinite Jest author, in which he called it “one of the scariest fucking books I’ve ever read”. (“Sorry about the language, Mary!” Coben added.)
She wrote, she told the Guardian in 2015, about “very nice people whose lives are invaded”. In 1988, she struck what the New York Times reported was “the first eight-figure agreement involving a single author”, with a multi-book contract that guaranteed her at least $10.1m. Given the Authors Guild Foundation award for Distinguished Services to the Literary Community in 2018, she was the recipient of numerous awards and 21 honorary doctorates, and saw many of her books adapted for film and television.
Michael Corda, her editor at Simon & Schuster since 1975, said: “She always set out to end each chapter on a note of suspense, so you just had to keep reading. It was a gift, but also the result of hard work … She was unique. Nobody ever bonded more completely with her readers; she understood them as if they were members of her own family. She was always absolutely sure of what they wanted to read – and, perhaps more important, what they didn’t want to read – and yet she managed to surprise them with every book.”