What is it that I find so compelling about Mary Higgins Clark’s books? She’s a sure-fire bestseller with each one (she’s written 26 single-author novels, according to PW), but though as easy to read in their own way as, say, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books are in theirs, they are often not as “critically favoured”. Well, I think she’s marvellous (with the exception of when she attempts comedy or Christmas seasonal specials).
The central characters of her books are invariably women who are so darn constructive in the face of sometimes awful life-circumstances. You have people who are tragically widowed young (as was the author herself), who are orphaned, betrayed by shifty husbands, imprisoned, psychologically traumatised, have their children kidnapped, are kidnapped themselves, and all the rest of it. Yet each heroine is capable, incorruptible, unbowed by adversity, and by the end of the book has, mainly by her own ingenuity and without too much of the “woman in peril” cliché, solved the central mystery. Sometimes the heroine is rich and doesn’t work – but is always constructively occupied — sometimes she’s not well-off and works in a profession, maybe in the law or the media. Whatever her social class or employment status, she has a strong moral decency. The books don’t always end happily, but the reason I like them so much is that the main character is usually an independent person with strong emotional intelligence, who ends up taking control of threatening events, leading either to a solution to the mystery or to a coming to terms with whatever the fates have thrown at her.
Thanks to Karen of Euro Crime, I’ve just read Mary Higgins Clark’s latest, I Heard that Song Before. Kay Lansing’s mother died when Kay was about four, and her alcoholic father ran off and is presumed to have committed suicide soon afterwards. Kay is bought up in New Jersey by her grandmother and becomes a librarian. At the start of the book’s main story, she goes to the local mansion to ask its owner, Peter Carrington, to host a charity fundraising event. He agrees, and after a whirlwind romance, he and Kay marry. Peter, however, is a questionable character, whose fiancée died after a party some time ago. He later married, but four years ago his pregnant wife drowned in the swimming pool in the grounds of the mansion. Peter has since lived under a cloud of suspicion, but Kay trusts him completely, despite the misgivings of her grandmother, who holds Peter responsible for these, and other, tragedies.
Having set up this central situation, the rest of the book is the typical Mary Higgins Clark six-hander, high on claustrophobia and suspicion. Any one of half a dozen people could be guilty of the crimes, but why would they have committed them? The evidence points increasingly towards Peter as the villain, and he is indeed arrested for one of the murders, but by switching the focus between his dead wife’s mother, who still lives on the estate; her son (now a Manhattan gallery-owner with a gambling problem); a trio of domestic servants; Peter’s chief aide; and assorted parents, friends and relations of the two dead women, the likely identity of the villain shifts from character to character, until aided by a police investigation and the perspective of a private eye hired by the ailing mother of the dead fiancée, everything cleverly falls into place.
Wonderful stuff – escapist maybe, but uplifting. Mary Higgins Clark is utterly reliable, sure in her plotting, knows what her readers like, and delivers.