Around the Island

Island Bookshelf: Farewell to the Queen of Suspense

I first met Mary Higgins Clark when we sat on adjacent barstools in Neary’s Pub, and we became instant friends. Neary’s is a classic New York Irish restaurant, with great steaks and a leprechaun of an owner. Jimmy Neary never lets a guest stay a stranger and never forgets his face thereafter. His inimitable Irish charm and devilish humor have made him a character in several of Mary’s books, the bestselling novels that numbered over 50 in her career.

At our first meeting, Mary’s first mystery novel, “Where Are the Children?” had just come out and was an immediate success. She became a favorite of millions of readers around the world who found her characters and plot twists irresistible. She never pretended to be a highbrow author, but had a commitment to keep her readers entertained and engaged, page after page, book after book.

She had a warm charm and ready laugh. Proud of her Irish roots in the Bronx, she didn’t shy away from a joke that delighted her: “How does an Irishman propose to his girlfriend?” she’d ask. “‘Would you like to be buried next to me mother?’”

She was a generous mentor, encouraging me in my own writing and introducing me to editors, leading to magazine assignments. Our families became close over the years. Her daughter Carol, who also became a novelist, was a bridesmaid when my sister Marianne married Dennis Hayes at Our Lady of the Isle. Their reception was held at our Westmoreland home under a jumbo-family-size tent, with Mary dubbing it “the mother of all weddings.”

Mary’s success was hard-earned; it’s well known that she had to support her five children after she was widowed young. Her husband, who died of a heart attack, had been unable to get life insurance because of his cardiac condition. She would write starting at five in the morning, get the children to school, then report to her secretarial job.

A few years after we met, Mary invited my husband and me to her second wedding. We were so happy for her, with a new husband who was tall, with a craggy handsomeness. They did not live happily ever after; the marriage soon proved to be a “mistake,” in her telling, and was eventually annulled. With her wicked wit, she later described her ex as having “a face like Lincoln and a brain like Howdy Doody.”

She later married John Conheeney, a former Merrill Lynch executive with whom she shared more than two decades of happiness before his death in 2018.

Her readers were loyal and adoring, and she turned out one mystery after another. There was usually a creepy villain, a plucky young heroine and often a bit of romance. Coming from a Catholic tradition, she joked, the most a reader would get from a love scene that turned intimate was “…and she read no more that evening.”

Her books can always be found on Island beaches in the summer; they are the classic beach reads. Several years ago, she arranged for a writer to continue turning out Mary Higgins Clark mysteries, so that her family and readers would be well provided for. Always generous, she often gave me autographed books for charity auctions and once agreed to be the honoree at a fundraising dinner for children in Northern Ireland. Despite having had surgery for a serious foot injury, she arrived at the event dressed to the nines in her favorite color, green, on crutches she’d decorated with shamrocks. The award we presented to her was a sculpture by Shelter Island artist Peggy Mach, titled simply, and most fittingly, “The Storyteller.”