Mary Higgins Clark, the Queen of Suspense, is one of most widely read and beloved writers of our era, but even in a career as successful as hers there is still room for firsts.
This month her latest novel, The Lost Years, takes her into exciting new territory for the whodunit maestro – in this case she explores the murderous intrigue that arises over a priceless religious relic.
It’s a groundbreaking departure for the bestselling Irish American suspense writer, taking her into the kind of biblical territory that on the surface might be more familiar to The Da Vinci Code’s Dan Brown’s devoted readers. But within five pages of Higgins Clark’s new book you’ll understand that the gift that made her famous is still in place – her unerring eye for a cracking good tale.
In The Lost Years the object of fascination is a letter purportedly written by Jesus Christ that is coveted by both scholars and criminals. People will literally kill to get their hands on this priceless artifact – and someone does.
“When my editor suggested a story with this kind of plotline over dinner last year my first reaction was Oh, you have got to be kidding,” Higgins Clark tells the Irish Voice. “But I kept coming back to it. We certainly know that Christ could write. He wrote in the sand when responding to the case of the accused adulteress. He was also a theological scholar. At 12 he was discussing the Torah and the Scriptures with the doctors of the Temple. We already know that. It has always been felt by some scholars that his lost years, between the ages of 12 and 30, that he had visited Egypt and studied there. Those are the lost years that are referenced in my title.”
But if a letter of Christ’s did survive, who was it likely to have been written to? Higgins Clark believes she has the answer, Joseph of Arimathea. “He was a secret disciple of Christ’s. I thought suppose when you think about Christ speaking at age 12 in Jerusalem, if the old priests in the Temple had recognized him as the Messiah, then Joseph of Arimathea could have witnessed him too. If he believed the child was the Messiah, then he would know the boy was in terrific danger and would not be safe there. He was a wealthy man, he had the means to have brought the boy into Egypt. There is nothing contrary in the records to suggest it could not have happened.”
None of Higgins Clark’s characters say that it did happen, however. Only one character in the book believes he has incontrovertible proof to support the claim. “The whole idea if that Christ could very well have written a letter to Joseph since he had been so kind to him all his life. I never quote the letter. The story claims that Peter took it to Rome with him and for 1,400 years the Pope’s argued whether it was legitimate or not. Then in 1494 the Pope Sixtus, one of the worst Pope’s we ever had, orders it destroyed. But hearing about this a quick acting Cardinal orders it hidden. It is not seen again for another 600 later when The Lost Years begins.”
When the letter shows up again it is in the possession of Jonathan Lyons, a gentle biblical scholar who believes it is genuine. But Lyons is shot to death as the book begins and his wife, who is suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s, is found with the murder weapon in her hand. That leaves it up to their 28-year-old daughter Mariah to unravel the mystery and clear her mothers’ name.
It’s a plotline that is crying out to be made into a screenplay and it will doubtless delight Higgins Clark’s legions of fans. But even though she could long ago have retired retire from the publishing game its a tribute to her talent and determination that she is still producing instant best sellers.
It may all be down to her mother’s example. The basic details of Higgins Clark’s early life and literary success are well known, but no one will ever know the cost of the hard knocks she had to contend with in her private life. First and foremost was the untimely death of her first husband. In 1964, aged 36, both her husband Warren Clark and her mother in law died on the same night (her husband from a heart attack, and shortly after her mother in law was overcome by the sad news and collapsed).
That’s the kind of dual blow that could finish off a less resilient nature, but Higgins Clark inherited some Irish steel in her girdle courtesy of her own hard working mother. To maintain her sanity and to keep the roof over her head Higgins Clark decided that becoming a published writer would be her meal ticket, now that she was sole provider for her family. It paid off almost right away.
But Higgins Clark swears she doesn’t see much to trumpet in her decision to take her fate into her own hands. Courage in the face of adversity is an Irish tradition, she says.
Still, it’s that’s kind of personal pluck that endeared her to the New York Saint Patrick’s Day Parade Committee, when they picked her to be the Grand Marshall of the 2011 Fifth Avenue Parade. Resplendent in a painted horse and carriage, Higgins Clark was one of the most universally loved parade picks in recent years. Did she have fun on the day?
“Oh of course I did,” she laughs. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience isn’t it? And to be riding in that horse and carriage was spectacular. The day was beautiful and everyone turned out. And all the while I just kept thinking of my father. He came over to America as a 20-year-old kid with just five pounds in his pocket. And I wish he could have envisioned my coming up Fifth Avenue at the head of those hundreds of thousands of people.”
Asked if she ever marvels at her literary success she unleashes a huge laugh. “No, I find nothing marvelous about myself. Look at it this way. I do what I love to do, which is being a storyteller. I know so many terrific writers, that doesn’t mean they sell well. The fact that my books have been successful is a blessing. It’s nothing to dust myself off about.”
But being this successful, this long, Higgins Clark has seen some decidedly strange letters from fans. “I do get some oddball notes sometimes. One woman wrote to me after one of the earlier books and she said, “How did you learn to read my mind? You have written the book I have written in my mind.” I remember thinking I’m not getting into a dialogue with this one. Another time an Israeli journalist who had never written a book sued me. Deposition after deposition. It cost Simon & Schuster $500,000 before a judge threw it out. So you have to be careful. People send me manuscripts and I always send them back. I simply cannot read them. You are always in danger of someone saying she stole my book!”
No Irish Need Apply? Not anymore