There are those who say, "Agatho, you are such a contrarian." To them I say, "No, I am not."
But seriously ... Every so often somebody posts a snarky comment about Mary Higgins Clark on DorothyL, the listserv for "mystery lovers" that often feels like a nonstop publicity engine for those who post endlessly. I think the days of DorothyL being able to get anyone onto the best seller list ended with Polly Whitney in the early 1990s (and where is Polly now?), but hope springs eternal.
Anyway, the Snarkmeister (not limited to one person) usually makes an offhand comment dismissing MHC as ... oh, too commercial, or too goody-goody, or not dark/deep enough, etc. To these folks, I note that Mary is not posting to social media a dozen times a day in a desperate effort to find readers. What Mary does do is turn out one best-seller after another. I have been to MHC book signings. The line stretches around the block, probably because Mary has a nice word to say to every single person waiting in line.
So, when I see Ms. Clark dismissed, I in my contrarian way feel the need to pick up one of her books and remind myself why she is so successful.
I hold in my hands the 1975 hardcover of WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN?, from back in the days when books were not puffed up and overly wordy, when you could tell a hell of a story in 200 pages. And I distinctly remember the shock I felt when reading 1980's THE CRADLE WILL FALL, when I happened upon a chapter that took only one page. WTF? But methinks James Patterson took notice, too, and took it to another whole level.
I just finished 2014's I'VE GOT YOU UNDER MY SKIN. I think the early books were MHC's the most suspenseful -- A STRANGER IS WATCHING is exquisite -- but this one was a good, solid read. I see Mary's technique more than I used to. Gather a bunch of people with secrets (some believable, some not), toss in a psycho, and let the tale unfold. It's pretty impossible not to like Clark's Irish-Catholic heroines, who are good girls from start to finish -- educated, professional, pretty, feminine, and kind. I'm forever moaning about readers wanting the hero/ine to be their best friend, but I can see where Clark's heroines fit the bill. Key #1 to her success.
Key #2 is the fact that the average teenager can read these books. No parent would object to the content--you see much worse in prime time and on cable. The always competent writing serves the story. Few literary flights of fancy and absolutely zero pretension. I think Mary writes as the person she is, and the reading public responds to this.
Key #3, and something that a lot of aspiring writers seem to forget, is that plot still matters. A lot. If you can't tell a story--and a good one at that--you shouldn't be writing in this genre. Show me a writer who gets by on character alone, and I'll come back at you with an argument that s/he can also tell a story.
Keep 'em coming, Mary.