With 33 thrillers to her name, Mary Higgins Clark long ago claimed the crown of Queen of Suspense. I’ve Got You Under My Skin is her latest – and in some respects most shocking – novel to date. Cahir O'Doherty hears from the bestselling author about love, murder and, changing gears, the new creative writing chair she has endowed at Fordham University.
For Mary Higgins Clark, the delight of being the author of a 33rd New York Times bestselling thriller just never gets old.
“It always feels good, of course – how can it not?” she tells the Irish Voice. “It does hit that lovely standard.”
In her latest, I’ve Got You Under My Skin (Simon & Schuster), a 3-year-old boy is terrorized by the murder of his father, a Manhattan ER doctor shot dead in a city playground.
The sole witness to the shocking murder, the boy is soon haunted by the memory of the killer’s piercing blue eyes and by the warning he leaves him with: “Tell your mother she’s next, then it’s your turn.”
But the killer doesn’t reckon with the smarts or strength of the books young Irish American heroine, Laurie Moran.
“I wanted Laurie to be strong,” explains Higgins Clark, 84. “I didn’t want her to be too young, you know so I thought 36 would be a good number. She had her young doctor husband shot when he’s pushing the swing for his son.
“It’s a crime that comes out of the blue, as so many crimes are today. He’s just shot for no reason whatsoever. I kind of like that idea.”
As the producer of a true crime reality series, Laurie has ample opportunity to reflect on the impact of murder on stranger’s lives too. Investigating an unsolved murder of a young socialite named Betsey Powell, she realizes that after two decades she may have an opportunity to finally lift the clouds of suspicion have hovered over the surviving guests. Until it becomes clear that each one is hiding a secret of their own, that is.
“Reality shows are all around us as you know,” says Higgins Clark. “It occurred to me that to live under suspicion of murder, from the time you’re 21 until 20 years later, when you’re still seeing articles on the news stands about which one of you did it? It occurred to me that none of them could have had a particularly good time.
“They agree to the show because they could also all use the money from being in it. Beyond that, if it finally came out which one of them did it, that would allow the others to be finally free. I like that combination of circumstances,” Higgins Clark explains.
As with every writer alive, Higgins Clark has her tough critics. “One woman wrote that my new book started a little slowly. Mother of God, I thought, there’s a murder on the first page!”
Higgins Clark, a former grand marshal of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade, has a peerless Irish background.
“My father came over in 1905. He was 21. I was just showing it to some friends because I have the ship’s log. He had to declare how much money he had when he came over,” she relates.
“He had five pounds in his pocket. My husband’s father had 10 pounds when he came over. So he says he married beneath his station.”
It’s that kind of wry humor that marks her as a member of the tribe. In a life that has had more than its fair share of hard knocks, Higgins Clark believes the Irish have a way of coping with adversity that is unlike any other culture.
“Because we can accept what comes to us without bitterness,” she explains. “We’re even able to oddly joke about it.
“We like to remember the good stories about a person we have lost and not be self-pitying. It’s a very strong thing to have faith that the person has gone on to a better place. Even though the grief is there, it’s not despair.”
A true Irishman can’t go to the store for a bottle of milk without an adventure on the way, she says.
“I remember my mother when she and her sisters would get together and tell stories. I always wanted to sit in because they were so funny,” she says.
The family story Higgins Clark remembers best concerns the1917 flu epidemic.
“My uncle was engaged to be married but his young wife was buried a week later in her wedding dress. My mother and her sisters were talking about him saying, ‘Oh, poor Anna Curley, Jimmy had the apartment all ready for her.’ He had bought everything he could think of, he had it down to the last detail and on the day of her funeral he said – I’ll never draw another sober breath. And one of the girls said, ‘And wasn’t he a man of his word!’”
Heart breaking and funny at the same time. That’s the Irish note. It’s the one that prompts Higgins Clark’s indulgent laughter.
Meanwhile, she has received a rare honor that, unlike the usual accolades and the record numbers of books sold, really touches her deeply. A chair in creative writing, endowed by her, has been created at her alma mater, Fordham University.
“I’m a graduate of Fordham and I’ve been generous to it,” she explains, “but when they wanted me to have a chair of literature I said no, I’m not going to do that because there are many people who think that crime writing is not literature. I didn’t want to be held up to ridicule.
“Then they said it would be a chair for creative writing and I said that I’ll buy, because no matter what you think of my books you can’t say I’m not an Irish storyteller.”
She always knew she was going to make it as a writer.
“I was writing when I was six. My father died when I was 15 and we had absolutely no money,” Higgins Clark recalls.
“I worked after school as a telephone operator. Those were the days of switchboards, you know? When I got to work early I would walk along Fifth Avenue and pick out the clothes I would have when I was a successful writer.”
Married at 22, on her way back from her honeymoon she kept faith with her dream of becoming a successful author.
“I walked down to NYU and signed up for a writing program. I learned everything I needed to know about writing there,” she says.
As for the reality show world and the celebrities that inspired her new novel, Higgins Clark has no time for them at all.
“I never watch reality shows! I think they’re such a waste of time. How anyone could be sitting there in front of a camera and have a fight with their husband or an argument with their kids I can’t fathom. But they’re very successful so I’m going to use them.”
Her ambition for I’ve Got You Under My Skin is the same one she’s had for her preceding 32 novels.
“I want you to say I enjoyed it from the first page. I got into it and I was sorry it ended. If I hear that I am very well pleased.”