As It Happens

Mary Higgins Clark spun 'terrifying' tales about domestic life, says author Harlan Coben

Mary Higgins Clark loved everything about being a bestselling mystery writer, says her friend and fellow mystery author Harlan Coben, and she never turned down the chance to talk to a fan. 

Clark, often dubbed the 'queen of suspense,' died on Jan. 31

Mary Higgins Clark, bestselling mystery author, died on Jan. 31 at the age of 92. (Simon and Schuster/Bernard Vidal/Associated Press)
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Mary Higgins Clark loved everything about being a bestselling mystery writer, and she was always the life of the party, says her friend and fellow mystery author Harlan Coben. 

Clark, who was known as the "queen of suspense," died on Jan. 31. She was 92. 

Clark sold more than 100 million copies of her bestselling books, such as A Stranger Is Watching, Daddy's Little Girl, and Where Are The Children?, which told the tales of women triumphing in dangerous situations. 

Coben spoke with As It Happens about his friend and mentor. Here is part of their conversation. 

What did [Clark] make of … being called the "queen of suspense"? Did she ever say anything about that? 

I think she liked it. I think she got ... a kick out of it. 

Especially when you think of the first book, Where Are The Children?, the first big thriller that she wrote. That was really a game changer in many ways ... now called domestic suspense.

I was friends with [author] David Foster Wallace … and I remember David telling me, or he wrote a letter to me actually, saying that that book scared the F out of him. 

Mary really sort of created that nail-biter tension into the domestic world. It's just terrifying.

Bestselling mystery writer Harlan Coben, right, says that Clark, left, was a mentor to him. (Harlan Coben/Twitter)

It's astonishing when you think of it, this woman who is at home with the kids and getting writing done before she had to go to work. And that philosophy, that idea of hers was that she's writing about something that: "This could be me. That could be my daughter. This could happen to us." Which is a quote from some years ago. 

Yes, and she's been an influence on so many of us. 

Mary's husband died when Mary was in her 30s with five children. And the very next day, her mother-in-law, hearing the news, dies. 

She woke up, wrote from 5 to 7 a.m. at a manual typewriter at her kitchen table and then woke up the kids, got them ready to school, and then worked full time.

Wow. 

So when people say to me, "I don't have time to write," I don't really believe you. 

And, of course, when hearing the news that the quick news clips were talking about Mary Higgins Clark, who commanded advances in the millions … but that that doesn't tell you about all those years she's spent not making that kind of money, does it?

I think when Where Are The Children? came out, Mary was already in her mid to late 40s and … that book broke out in a very big way fairly fast.

I think that's part of what gave Mary a real appreciation for what she had. 

One quick story: We were at an event and there was a fan there that was kind of very shyly looking at Mary. So Mary goes over and starts a conversation. This is how Mary was. She made sure she pulled the fan in and made the fan feel comfortable. 

And we're going into the dining hall and she and the fans are still talking, so I said to Mary's husband, John, I said, "Do you think I should go over and kind of save Mary?"

And John looks over and says, "Maybe you need to save the fan." 

She was just so charming with everybody. Everybody was drawn to her. Everybody loved her. 

Coben, far left, with Clark's husband John, Clark, and Coben's wife, Anne. (Submitted by Harlan Coben)

What was she like? 

First of all, she was extraordinarily generous to new writers. You know, when I first was starting out, before I was selling any books at all, Mary still treated me like a colleague.

She was funny. She was hilarious. She loved a good time.

Her granddaughter, Elizabeth Clark, who's a wonderful friend, was saying that even a night or two ago, on one of her last nights, when they asked her if she wanted more wine with dinner, she said: "Always."

She loved all the perks of being Mary Higgins Clark.

We talked about this panel that we were on where the question was, you know, "What's the downside of being a bestselling author?" And her answer was, "Nothing."

Is there a favourite memory that you're going to cherish about Mary Higgins Clark? 

Mary had formed a group, which we're going to now retire ... called the Adams Roundtable, which is a bunch of mystery writers that ... would meet and have dinner. 

And I think my favourite memories with Mary was actually the more recent years when she was a little frailer. 

I would drive her in, so we would just have time — the two of us — alone in the car.

And her mind was as sharp as ever. And she was just such great company. 


Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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