In Memory of the Queen of Suspense
I first “met” Mary Higgins Clark at my 7th grade book fair at Trinity Jr. High. I’d never heard of her before, but the cover declared her the “Undisputed Master of Suspense” and her novel, Loves Music, Loves to Dance, was by far the thickest book available that day. I was blowing through Nancy Drew books in a few hours, so the longer the book, the better.
Loves Music, Loves to Dance tells the story of Darcy and Erin, two friends who live in New York. A third friend is investigating a possible serial killer who finds his victims through personal ads. Darcy and Erin volunteer to help and, surprise, surprise, shortly into the investigation, Erin answers the wrong ad and is murdered. Like the previous victims, her body is found frozen and one of her shoes has been replaced with a dance slipper. Like every good Mary Higgins Clark heroine, Darcy dives deeper into the investigation instead of leaving it to the professionals. And, like every good Mary Higgins Clark ending, our heroine is saved by her newfound love interest (and a handful of other people), the killer is apprehended, and everyone lives happily ever after.
If you’ve ever read Mary Higgins Clark, you know her books are fairly mild. There’s psychological suspense, but little violence, no gore, and absolutely no sex. Loves Music, Loves to Dance may not have been entirely appropriate for my age, but it was more appropriate than some of the books I’d already read, so I didn’t think anything of it. Until our English teacher decided we would all do timeline presentations on the books we’d bought at the book fair.
Looking back, I probably should have spoken with my teacher privately and explained that the novel I’d bought was about a serial killer who tossed his victims in a deep freezer so he could later dance with their frozen corpses. I am absolutely sure she would have let me do my presentation on something else. But I didn’t want to read an “age appropriate” book. I assumed that, at some point, someone from the school had approved the book for the fair. If they were okay with me buying it, why wouldn’t they be okay with me giving a presentation on it? So, I rolled out some butcher paper in my mom’s art room and drew out the timeline of “the dance shoe killings.”
Turns out, my assumption that someone at the school had approved the books available at the fair was completely wrong. This became evident about twenty seconds into my presentation when my teacher cut me off and asked, “You got this book at the fair?” with disbelief and disgust in her voice. I confirmed I had and carried on; my classmates seemed pretty entertained, but my teacher's expressions increased with horror until i finished. I got an A, because technically I'd done exactly what was assigned. But I also got a lecture on what was and was not appropriate subject matter for school presentations.
I don’t remember if Mary Higgins Clark's books were included in the fairs the following years, but it didn’t matter. After the first, I was hooked, and I started reading them on my own. Since then, her work has been my literary equivalent of a cozy blanket and hot cup of tea. Almost all of her books follow the same basic formula, but that can be said about a lot of incredibly successful authors. Are they a little predictable? Yes. But, more importantly, they’re engaging and entertaining. And she throws just enough curveballs to keep things interesting. Plenty of critics have argued that her work lacks literary merit, but no one can deny her massive contribution to the mystery genre.
Mary Higgins Clark passed away last week, and I’m sad I will never again read one of her books for the first time. But I’m thankful for the 51 books that will live on after her, ready to be reread anytime I need a cozy, entertaining break from reality.