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Mary Higgins Clark's Where Are the Children?

Mary Higgins Clark’s first mystery novel catapulted her into fame. Thirty-five years later Where Are the Children? is in its 75th edition in paperback. It has also been reissued in hardcover as a Simon & Schuster classic and has been chosen as one of the 100 best mystery novels of all time. In my post on Where Are You Now? I pointed out that, with the publication of more than 100 million copies of her books, Clark is one of the all-time best-selling mystery novelists. This Grand Master award winner has certainly perfected the art of mystery storytelling. Given the fact that her novels contain no overt sex or violence, her popularity is especially amazing.

What is the secret of Clark’s success? She has stated that “readers identify with my characters. I write about people going about their daily lives, not looking for trouble, who are suddenly plunged into menacing situations.” Clark takes a domestic situation as her starting point, and introduces unexpected terror into it. The stark juxtaposition of terror and the everyday characterizes her novels and provides a winning formula for success.

Clark began Where Are the Children? after pondering the following scenario: “suppose your children disappear and you are accused of killing them – and then it happens again.” It is a parent’s worst nightmare, and Clark is adept at preying on people’s deepest fears. As Pelzer observes, Clark forces readers “to confront the underside of their ordinary lives and to acknowledge the evil lurking in the shadows of their quiet existence” (1995, 17).

In Where Are the Children? Nancy Harmon flees San Francisco after she is acquitted of the murder of her two children. When we first meet her, she has moved to Cape Cod, is married with two more children, and is trying to cope with the past when the unthinkable occurs – her second set of children go missing.

The story is fast-paced and intensely gripping. Clark’s former job as a radio script writer taught her to write compactly and concisely. “The demands of radio scriptwriting,” Pelzer points out, “especially its fast pacing and believable dialogue, were important to her future novels” (1995, 3). Although the story relies on unrealistic coincidences, and does not finish with the surprising blockbuster conclusions characteristic of her later work, it is filled with riveting psychological suspense.

The rugged Cape Cod setting and the violent nor’ eastern storm are integral forces in the narrative. The raging weather acts as an impetus to events and a reflection of characters’ tempestuous emotions.

Nancy Harmon, like all Clark’s protagonists, must deal with an unexpected calamity that turns her world upside-down. The death of Clark’s father, as she has observed, had a significant impact upon her creation and understanding of characters:
When I was ten years old, I had a terrible shock. Coming home from early mass one morning, I found a crowd of neighbors outside the house. My father had died in his sleep. My mother went on to raise me and my two brothers alone. When I had said goodnight to my father, I didn’t know it was for the last time. His sudden death jolted me into awareness of the fragility of life. My mother’s example taught me resilience. The characters in my books are resilient and resourceful. When calamity strikes, they carry on.
Tragic events shape the lives of Clark’s heroines, making them stronger, tougher, and better able to cope with life.

If you want to read a book that will keep you up all night, pick up Where Are the Children?

Clark, Mary Higgins. Where Are the Children? 1975. New York: Pocket Books, 2005.

Pelzer, Linda C. Mary Higgins Clark: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.