Mama He’s Crazy

Believe it or not, back before the Internet and social media, it was possible for a book to go viral; to become so popular and so talked about it would sell a gazillion copies and establish the author–usually–as a long-time bestseller. To this day, I don’t know how I became aware of the viral books of the 1970’s (titles like Coma by Robin Cook; Jonathon Livingston Seagull by Richard Back; Jaws by Peter Benchley; The Other by Thomas Tryon; The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty; and The Godfather by Mario Puzo, among others), yet I did become very aware of them, and read most of them (true confession: I never read Jonathon Livingston Seagull, despite being a number one fiction bestseller for two consecutive years).

Mary Higgins Clark’s Where Are The Children? was a viral sensation when it was first published in 1975; I read it in paperback, and distinctly remember plucking it off the wire rack in the Emporia Safeway. I started reading it in the car as my mom drove us back home to Americus–the little town seven miles or so northwest of Emporia, where we lived; population less than a thousand, and the only time I’ve ever lived in such a small town–and couldn’t stop reading. I helped her bring the groceries in, went to my bedroom, and piled the pillows up and went back to reading.

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He could feel the chill coming through the cracks around the windowpanes. Clumsily he got up and lumbered over to the window. Reaching for one of the thick towels he kept handy, he stuffed it around the rotting frame.

The incoming draft made a soft, hissing sound in the towel, a sound that vaguely pleased him. He looked out at the mist-filled sky and studied the whitecaps churning in the water. From this side of the house it was often possible to see Provincetown, on the opposite side of Cape Cod Bay.

He hated the Cape. He hated the bleakness of it on a November day like this; the stark grayness of the water; the stolid people who didn’t say much but studied you with their eyes. He had hated it the one summer he’d been here–waves of tourists sprawling on the beaches; climbing up the steep embankment to this house; gawking in the downstairs windows, cupping their hands over their eyes to peer inside.

He hated the large FOR SALE sign that Ray Eldredge has posted on the front and back of the big house and the fact that now Ray and the woman who worked for him had begun bringing people in to see the house. Last month it has been only a matter of luck that he’d come along as they’d started through; only lyck that hed gotten to the top floor before they had and been able to put away the telescope.

Time was running out. Somebody would buy this house and he wouldn’t be able to rent it again. That was why he’d sent the article to the paper. He wanted to still be here to enjoy seeing her exposed for what she was in front of these people…now, when she must have started to feel safe.

I bought another copy of Where Are The Children? in 2014; my original copy lost years ago to one of many moves, intending to go back and rereading it at some point. The importance of Mary Higgins Clark, not just to women crime writers but to the genre in general, cannot ever be overstated. Clark was the bridge between the domestic suspense masters of the past–Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, Dorothy B. Hughes, among many others–and the next generation of women crime writers that dawned in the 1980’s, as well as to the modern domestic suspense writers–women like Alison Gaylin, Lori Rader-Day,  Catriona McPherson, and Wendy Corsi Staub, among many others–and her example–of grace, generosity, kindness, and assistance–is one other writers should emulate.

We could all use more Mary Higgins Clarks in the world.

Anyway, because of this importance, I thought I should reread her first as an homage to her importance; I’d recently met her, in passing, and was shocked when I ran into her again a year later that she remembered my name and the short conversation we’d had as I’d helped her onto the escalator at the Grand Hyatt in New York; I, of course, remembered every word and that glowing smile she’d given me. There was little doubt in my mind she wouldn’t remember me; how many thousands of people had passed briefly through her life? But she was sharp as a tack, and remembered me. “Greg! I was hoping you’d be here if I needed help with the escalator again,” she said, holding our her hand to me with that thousand-watt smile of hers. Then she winked, “I’ll be looking for you later. How did that book you were writing turn out?” When I told her I’d worked out the problem (yes, as I helped her onto the escalator and chatted briefly, I somehow managed to tell her that one of the many reasons I admired her was her dedication to working hard, and asked if she ever got stuck–because I was stuck on my WIP. She laughed and said, “Work through it. That’s the only way.” She was right.) and the book was coming out that very month, she replied, “I look forward to reading it.”

I seriously doubt that she did, frankly–but it was an incredibly kind and generous thing to say to someone many many rungs on the ladder beneath her, if we can even be said to be on the same ladder.

Her recent death obviously saddened many, me amongst them. So I decided to memorialize her by rereading her first and most famous bestseller, Where Are The Children? 

And really, it was past time, wasn’t it?

Upon finishing my reread, I would say that Clark was most like Charlotte Armstrong, of the women who came before her; she wrote about, like Armstrong, normal every day women who were simply minding their own business when something evil came across their path, and they had to dig deep inside and discover their own strength to overcome it.

In Where Are The Children?, Clark came up with a devilishly clever plot about one of the worst things that could ever happen to a woman: the loss of her children. Nancy Harmon, now Nancy Eldredge, married one of her college professors and had two children by him, only to have them snatched away and murdered. Their bodies were found washed ashore, their heads taped inside plastic bags; dead before they went into the water. Nancy was tried for their murders, convicted–and then released on appeal due to a technicality. The disappearance of the prime witness against her made retrying her impractical; so she changed her hair and disappeared from San Francisco to Cape Cod, where she found and married a realtor and had two more children–where no one knows who she is. (This would, of course, be impossible–or incredibly difficult–today; with the Internet and 24 hour news, everyone in the country would recognize her, different hair color or no.) Nancy is still haunted by her past, most of which she has buried in her subconscious–but little does she realize her idyllic new life is about to upended: on the same day the local paper runs an article exposing her past, her two children, Michael and Missy, disappear yet again; and of course, it looks like she has killed yet another set of her children.

But what Clark does is let the reader know immediately that Nancy is not only innocent of killing this set of children, but the first set as well. The book opens, as seen above, with a chapter in the point of view of the villain of the story; she does this consistently throughout the book–we see the events from other points of views, other than just Nancy’s and the villain’s, which also helps the suspense build and keeps the reader turning the page.

Also, it should be noted that the entire timeline of the book is less than one day, and probably not even ten hours; the children disappear around ten in the morning and the climax of the book happens after nightfall. Also, the book takes place during a particularly nasty thunderstorm, which includes hail.

Another excellent way she builds suspense is bringing in minor characters on the periphery of the story, puts a scene in their point of view, and of course it turns out that each one of these minor characters holds another, crucial piece of the puzzle.

Where Are The Children? is a subversive novel in many ways, and it’s easy to see how it became a phenomenon, and why Clark won the hearts of millions of readers. She plays with the tropes of what it means to be a mother; how quickly we blame mothers for anything that happens to their children or how they behave; and how quickly the admiration for motherhood can turn to contempt and scorn–and how easy that turn is made.

It can also be seen as a sequel, of sorts, to those Gothic novels where a child is endangered and the heroine has to act to save the child; this was a well Phyllis A. Whitney and Victoria Holt drew from, many many times. Instead of trying to save the child, in this case this is the aftermath of what happened should the mother (or young governess, whomever the heroine was) not have succeeded the first time in saving the children–but has a chance at redemption by finding and saving the second set of children.

It reminded me somewhat of Charlotte Armstrong’s Mischief, which is also long overdue for a revisit.

And now, back to the spice mines.

He’ll Have to Go

Saturday morning, and I slept in until nearly eight thirty! Living large here, I have to say.

Yesterday was one of those days; the temperature dropped, as you may recall, and once again when turning on the heat Thursday night, it didn’t really come on–it did, but it never truly got warm in the Lost Apartment, either upstairs or down. So, I wound up having to stay home from work to wait for the HVAC guys, who actually arrived dutifully when they said they would (this is so rare as to merit mention), and worked on it for a while. They did eventually leave, and I went to the gym and ran my errands.  I don’t know if the heat is actually fixed or not; we didn’t need it last night anywhere other than the kitchen, and I have a space heater for in there (it never warms up in the kitchen, ever) but I did manage to get a lot of cleaning and organizing done. I also managed to start watching the film of The Talented Mr. Ripley on the iPad yesterday at the gym (the Anthony Minghella version) and it veers away from the book’s narrative much more than I ever had supposed; the character of Meredith (played by Cate Blanchett) doesn’t exist in the book, nor does the entire subplot about Dickie’s affair with the village girl in Mongibello. But the one thing I will say about this film–and the thirty or so minutes of it I watched–Matt Damon is exceptionally great in the role of Tom; far more so than Jude Law as Dickie (he was nominated for an Oscar; the film made him a star), and this just might be one of Damon’s best performances.

Paul, I believe, is off to the office later today, and has plans with friends to go watch Krewe de Vieux tonight; I intend to stay home and work on the Secret Project, get my taxes together and sent off to the accountant, and emails to answer. There’s also organizing and filing to do, and I need to do the floors; I always leave the floors for Saturday vacuuming. Paul’s absence also gives me no excuse for not reading and writing for most of the day; around the cleaning, at any rate–and I am actually looking forward to getting a lot of both done today.

I’m still reading Tracy Clark’s Broken Places, which is really good, and in fact, once I finish writing this I am most likely going to  head over to the easy chair and spend a few hours with it this morning before moving on to the Secret Project. I am also really enjoying Jason Berry’s City of a Million Dreams, which I am not very far into, but I feel confident in recommending just based on the introduction and part of the first chapter. I’ve not read Berry before–he’s local, and has written quite a few books, including taking the Archdiocese to task for covering up the sexual abuse of children–but I am impressed enough to start adding his canon to my TBR list. We started watching Avenue 5, which was much funnier than I thought it would be–and Hugh Laurie is terrific as the captain; the entire cast is actually quite good. We’re probably going to also start watching The Outsider on HBO, which presents a conundrum for me; I generally like to read the book while I am watching the TV series based on it (I did this with Big Little Lies, and found it to be incredibly enjoyable; I’ve not read the King yet, but once I am done with the Clark, I am definitely going to pull The Outsider down from the shelf and give it a go)., but I guess pulling down The Outsider and moving it up to the top of the TBR list won’t hurt anyone or anything.

Parades also start this coming Friday on the St. Charles Avenue route; the challenge is going to be continuing to write and go to the gym around my job and the parades; parade watching is always a blast–it will probably never get old for me–but it’s also exhausting and keeps me up later at night than I probably need to be awake, given how early I will have to get up the following mornings.

It’s also lovely to wake up and sit at my desk and glance around and see clean, clear counters and a sink that is primarily empty of dirty dishes. There’s a load in the dishwasher that needs to be put away, and a load of laundry in the dryer that also neede to be fluffed and folded, but like I said, other than that and the floors (and these stacks of file folders and scribbled notes scattered around my desk), there’s no cleaning to be done this morning. My muscles are tired this morning from the gym yesterday, but I’m not sore, and I feel more stretched than I usually do, which also actually feels good–I may just stretch out a bit a little later; I’d forgotten how good it feels to have stretched muscles as opposed to tight ones.

So, that’s the plan for today, at any rate. I’m going to go pour yet another cup of coffee, take my book and repair to the easy chair; after that, it’s back to the desk to do some writing and answer some emails (I never actually send them until Monday morning; emails beget emails, and I’d rather not wake up Monday morning at the crack of dawn with an insane amount of emails to answer; it’s too, too daunting to deal with on a twelve hour day).

I was also thinking the other day–thanks to a post by someone on Facebook–about books that should be paired together, like a good wine and some good cheese; how reading the two back-to-back can enhance the reading pleasure of both. Michael Koryta’s The Prophet (which is one of my favorite books), for example, pairs beautifully with Megan Abbott’s Dare Me (and you need to be watching the television adaptation of Dare Me); Alafair Burke recommends pairing Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and there was one more I can’t quite remember, but it was also quite brilliant. (I also think pairing Stephen King’s Carrie and Christine together enhances the pleasure of reading each even more.)

I was also thinking about “event” books; Gone Girl was probably the most recent “event” book–a book that sold a gazillion copies and everyone was talking about. There have always been “event books”, which in the pre-Internet, pre-social media days was harder to have happen, and yet it did, all the time. Two such books from the 70’s include Thomas Tryon’s The Other and Peter Benchley’s Jaws; the fame of Jaws was spread even further by an event film based on it that has almost entirely eclipsed the book. Robin Cook’s Coma was another one of these; I intend to include The Other in my Reread Project this year, but rather than Jaws I am going to reread Benchley’s second novel, The Deep, and Cook’s second novel, Sphinx–which was Cook’s only non-medical thriller thriller.

And on that note, I am going to repair to the easy chair with my coffee and Tracy Clark. Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader; I certainly intend to.

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Before the Next Teardrop Falls

Saturday morning and a bit chilly in the Lost Apartment this morning. I slept ridiculously well last night–only waking when the cat decided to turn me into his bed, climbing on me while purring deep and loud, and of course kneading me with his paws for a while, to make me more comfortable to lie on, I suppose? I was tired last night–the week rather wore me down–and so am glad and grateful to have gotten a decent night’s sleep.

Mary Higgins Clark died yesterday, at the age of ninety-two, which of course is terribly sad news for the crime/mystery community. I remember reading Where Are The Children–it was one of the those phenomena books in the 1970’s; it was everywhere and everyone was talking about it (like Robin Cook’s Coma, Stephen King, and several others) back in the days before social media and “viral” sensations; Mary went “viral” back in the day when it was much harder to go viral. I also read her second novel, A Stranger is Watching. I deeply enjoyed both books. Mary’s career lasted over forty years and forty best-sellers; she became a living legend during her lifetime.

I met Mary when I attended the Edgars for the first time, clad in my kilt and beret and feeling excited and awed to be at the biggest event in my writing community for the year; I was both intimidated by the glittering stars of the genre in attendance that evening, yet thrilled at the same time. I couldn’t help but think, as I drank champagne at the cocktail party before the ceremony, almost too intimidated to make eye contact with anyone, about how when I was a teenager dreaming about being a writer back in Kansas that I used to imagine being at events like this, surrounded by amazingly talented people. I had a few moments of feeling overwhelmed by the occasion. I finally took my second or third glass and sat down at one of the tables…only to be joined a few moments later by Mary and her husband. I had seen her the night before at the Agents and Editors party, when the winner of the award she had started with her publisher to honor women who wrote books like hers was presented. The winner that year was Hank Phillippi Ryan, for The Other Woman. I was too tongue-tied to say much of anything–I was still in too much shock to be sitting at a table with MARY HIGGINS CLARK, along with a serious case of Imposter Syndrome. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember her asking me, in a very kind and interested voice, what I wrote–and I will never forget how she made me feel like both colleague and peer.

I’ve always regretted not getting a picture with her.

I decided, right then and there, to revisit Where Are The Children; I bought a copy soon thereafter and it has languished in my TBR pile ever since; but since I am focusing on The Reread Project this year, I am moving it further up the list.

Mary meant a lot to a lot of people, not the least of whom were her readers, as well as her contemporaries. She was kind and exceptionally generous to other writers, particularly women getting started in the business, and was a shining light in our community.

It’s going to be strange being at the Edgars this year and not seeing Mary.

I have a lot to do today; I need to get to work on the Secret Project as well as cleaning up around here; I have some errands to run and a some other, non-career related things to get taken care of today, and of course, the email does tend to pile up over night. My regular use email doesn’t get nearly as much spam as the gmail account I used does–that’s the one I use for reader contact and also for donating to causes I believe in, and of course, once you donate to something you get put on a chain list and it gets shared and/or sold, and it grows and grows and grows. I don’t check it as often as I should to clean it out, and there will be times when I go there and there’s over 300 new emails; all of it, for the most part, junk. I’ve finally started unsubscribing to mailing lists there, but it never seems to quite do the trick.

I also have a lot of organizing to do; I have to stay organized if I intend to get anything done and not miss anything. So, after I finish this, I am going to curl up in my easy chair for about an hour to read Dread Journey by Dorothy B. Hughes, and then once I am fully awake I am going to start organizing and going through emails and so forth. I also have two blog posts, about The Talented Mr. Ripley and Kirkland Revels, to finish writing; perhaps today will be that day.

And on that note I am going to get another mug of coffee and head to the easy chair with Ms. Hughes. Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader.

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