fb-pixel Skip to main content

Best-selling mystery author Mary Higgins Clark dies at 92

‘My characters aren’t looking for trouble,’ she said. ‘Trouble comes from the outside. The “why” is the mystery.'

Mary Higgins Clark, photographed at her home in Saddle River, N.J., in 2004.MIKE DERER/Associated Press

Mary Higgins Clark long ago solved the secret of what would turn her dozens of mystery novels into perpetual bestsellers.

“My characters aren’t looking for trouble,” she told the Globe in 1994, during an interview at her Cape Cod home in Dennis. “Trouble comes from the outside. The ‘why’ is the mystery.”

A writer who knew tragedy firsthand, Ms. Higgins Clark rose at dawn as a widowed mother to write her first books while her five children slept. She was 92 when she died Friday in Naples, Fla., her publisher, Simon & Schuster, announced on her website.

Along with her longtime residence on the Cape, she had homes in Naples, Manhattan, N.Y., and Saddle River, N.J.

Advertisement



Though she was one of the world’s most successful writers, earning a reported $64 million advance in 2000 for five books, she spoke about how determination is as necessary as talent.

“My first story garnered 40 rejection slips but finally sold for $100,” she told the Globe in 1987. “I framed the first letter of acceptance. Then I put a vigil light under it.”

At book-signings and public appearances, she often talked with aspiring writers and set them straight.

“When a person tells me, ‘I’m going to write a book as soon as …’ I say, ‘Hold it right there. You’re never going to do it.’ I don’t want to hear ‘as soon as the kids are grown’ or ‘as soon as I have a nice quiet room’ or ‘as soon as I retire,’ ” she told the Globe in 1991.

“The difference between the people with the talent and the desire to write and the people who become professionals is that the professional has a need to write and the professional will find a way to get it down on paper,” she added. “When I was raising my children, I would get up at 5 a.m. and write until 7 a.m. every day. You have to do something like that.”

Advertisement



Hard work and an eye for details filled more than 50 books, which collectively have sold more than 100 million copies in the United States alone, according to her website.

Her first book, “Aspire to the Heavens,” about George Washington, was published in 1968 and later reissued as “Mount Vernon Love Story.”

In 1975, she turned to mysteries with “Where Are the Children?” Ms. Higgins Clark quickly found success in a career that stretched to her latest book, “Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry,” published in November.

“I’ve had six bestsellers in a row,” she said in 1987. “My latest, ‘Weep No More, My Lady,’ got me a $750,000 advance and $1.5 million for paperback rights. I’m not rich. I’m blessed.”

Research informed all her books. She attended trials, where evidence and testimony inspired scenes and plot twists.

“I go for the sense of human drama, to get beyond the chalk marks on the pavement,” she said in 1991.

At one trial, she saw “a crumpled dress, State’s Exhibit 256A, and the victim’s friend was on the stand, and she was asked if she was sure it was the dress that the victim was wearing the night she was murdered. And she said, ‘Yes, because I remember she had just bought it. She wore it to work, and she came over to my desk and twirled around.’ And then it’s no longer just a dress: It’s the person who bought it, with hope; it’s a death shroud. These are the kinds of things you pick up.”

Advertisement



Hearing what happened in the lives of others also reinforced the basic premise of her work, that luck — good or bad — has much to do with who lives and who dies at any moment.

“Recently, I went to a trial of a man who killed a young nurse who was driving to the hospital at 7 a.m.,” she said in 1987. “One block from the hospital, she stopped for a red light. The man jumped in her car and killed her. I thought: ‘If only she had locked the door. If only.’ Why was it the nurse’s fate to be at that place at that moment? It was a mystery of utter chance.”

Mary Theresa Eleanor Higgins was born on Dec. 24, 1927, in the Bronx borough of New York City.

The death of her father, an Irish immigrant who had owned and run a pub, introduced her to the fragility of life.

“We all hang by a thread,” she said in 1987. “When I was 10, I came skipping home from Mass. A neighbor stopped me to announce casually that my father was dead. Dead? I was just a little girl and the fact of life, which is death, confronted me. It was a lesson in human precariousness. You’re here one day and you disappear the next. The shock was that just yesterday I had said goodnight to my dad. I didn’t know it was goodbye. Something can happen at any moment. That’s what makes life the ultimate mystery.”

Advertisement



To help support her family, she worked as a secretary after high school, and as a Pan Am flight attendant, before marrying Warren Clark, with whom she had five children.

“My first husband died as I was giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He was having a fatal heart attack,” she later recalled.

Ms. Higgins Clark’s second marriage, to Raymond Ploetz, was annulled. In 1996, she married John Conheeney, who had been a Merrill Lynch executive. He died in 2018. She dedicated several of her books to him, and she coauthored books with her daughter Carol Higgins Clark, who also is a mystery novelist.

A complete list of survivors and information about a memorial service were not immediately available.

In 2002, Ms. Higgins Clark published “Kitchen Privileges,” a memoir whose title referred to the years after her father died when her mother took in boarders and let them use the kitchen.

In recent years, she coauthored books in the Under Suspicion series with Alafair Burke.

Many of Ms. Higgins Clark’s books were adapted for TV movies or films. She wrote children’s books and short stories in addition to her novels.

She recalled in 1987 that she had graduated from Wood Secretarial School in New York in 1946, “and at age 46, I entered Fordham University.” By then she was a best-selling author who “graduated summa cum laude in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. To celebrate, I gave myself a prom party.”

Advertisement



As with her writing career, her life was a study in perseverance and determination.

“I think there’s life after death,” she said. “I don’t think we’re all dressed in white robes up there, singing all the time. But the spirit is immortal. These values are reflected in my writing.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.