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'Queen of Suspense' novelist Mary Higgins Clark dies aged 92

“Nobody ever bonded more completely with her readers than Mary did,” her editor said.

Image: Mike Derer/PA Images

MARY HIGGINS CLARK, the tireless and long-reigning “Queen of Suspense” whose tales of women beating the odds made her one of the world’s most popular writers, has died aged 92.

Her publisher, Simon & Schuster, announced that she died of natural causes in Naples, Florida, yesterday.

“Nobody ever bonded more completely with her readers than Mary did,” her longtime editor Michael Korda said in statement. “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.”

Widowed in her late 30s with five children, she became a perennial bestseller over the second half of her life, writing or co-writing A Stranger Is Watching, Daddy’s Little Girl and more than 50 other favourites.

Sales topped 100 million copies and honours came from all over, including a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from France, and a Grand Master statuette from the Mystery Writers of America.

Many of her books, like A Stranger Is Watching and Lucky Day, were adapted for films and television. She also collaborated on several novels with her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark.

“You want to turn the page,” she told the Associated Press in 2013. “There are wonderful sagas you can thoroughly enjoy a section and put it down. But if you’re reading my book, I want you stuck with reading the next paragraph.

“The greatest compliment I can receive is ‘I read your darned book ’til 4 in the morning, and now I’m tired.’ I say ‘Then you get your money’s worth’.”

 Storied life

She was born Mary Higgins in 1927 in New York City, the second of three children. She would later take the last name Clark after marriage.

After working as a hotel switchboard operator – Tennessee Williams was among the guests she eavesdropped on – and a flight attendant for Pan American, she married Capital Airways regional manager Warren Clark in 1949. Throughout the 1950s and into the ’60s, she raised their children, studied writing at New York University and began getting stories published.

Some stories drew upon her experiences at Pan American. Another story, which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Beauty Contest At Buckingham Palace, imagined a pageant featuring Queen Elizabeth II, Jackie Kennedy and Princess Grace of Monaco.

But by the mid-60s, the magazine market for fiction was rapidly shrinking and her husband’s health was failing; Warren Clark died of a heart attack in 1964.

Clark quickly found work as a script writer for Portrait Of A President, a radio series on American presidents. Her research inspired her first book, a historical novel about George and Martha Washington. She was so determined that she began getting up at 5am, working until nearly 7am before feeding her children and leaving for work.

Aspire To The Heavens as published in 1969. It was “a triumph”, she recalled in her memoir, Kitchen Privileges, but also a folly. The book’s publisher was sold near the release date and it received little attention.

In September 1974, she sent her agent a manuscript for Die A Little Death, acquired months later by Simon & Schuster for $3,000. Renamed Where Are The Children? and published in 1975, it became her first best-seller and began her long, but not entirely surprising, run of success. She would allege that a psychic had told her she would become rich and famous.

Clark, who wrote well into her 90s, more than compensated for her early struggles. She acquired several homes and for a time owned part of the New Jersey Nets.

She was among a circle of authors, including Lee Child and Nelson DeMille, who regularly met for dinner in Manhattan. She also had friends in Washington and was a White House guest during the presidential administrations of George HW Bush, Bill Clinton and George W Bush. Barbara Bush became a close friend.

Married since 1996 to former Merrill Lynch Futures chief executive John J Conheeney, Clark remembered well the day she said goodbye to hard times. It was in April 1977, and her agent had told her that Simon & Schuster was offering $500,000 for the hardback of her third novel, A Stranger Is Watching, and that publisher Dell was paying $1 million for the paperback.

She had been running her own script production company during the day and studying for a philosophy degree at Fordham University at night, returning home to New Jersey in an old car with more than 100,000 miles on it.

“As I drove on to the Henry Hudson Parkway, the tailpipe and muffler came loose and began dragging on the ground. For the next 21 miles, I kur-plunked, kur-plunked, all the way home,” she wrote in her memoir. “People in other cars kept honking and beeping, obviously sure that I was either too stupid or too deaf to hear the racket.

“The next day I bought a Cadillac!”

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