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Catholic faith helps Mary Higgins Clark bring characters to life

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TORONTO — How does one go from being a widowed mother of five children to a best-selling suspense writer with a huge international following?

If you happen to be Mary Higgins Clark, you would point to nothing more than persistence, taking advantage of opportunities and plain hard work.

Author of 40 suspense novels, four short-story collections, two children's books, a historical novel and an enduring memoir, Higgins Clark released her latest work, "Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry" in November.

The prolific, 90-plus-year-old New Yorker shows no signs of slowing down in her lifelong ambition to tell good stories.

Higgins Clark now is working on a new title with co-author Alafair Burke, daughter of noted Catholic novelist James Lee Burke. The Higgins Clark-Burke writing team already has five jointly written suspense novels to their credit, while with her daughter Carol, Higgins Clark has produced another five lively mysteries.

"I'm just getting to work with Alafair on 'Just Take My Heart,' our next collaboration. I have an idea for my next solo novel, but it's in the very early stages," Higgins Clark recently told Catholic News Service.

A key element in most of Higgins Clark's work is the presence of a strong, courageous — and Catholic — heroine who, while often accomplished and living the good life, triumphs over violence, intrigue and adversity to make things right in the end.

The appearance of priests, churches and Catholic schools is no accident in the Higgins Clark canon.

"My novels almost always have at the core of the story a strong young woman who is Catholic," Higgins Clark said. "Her faith will help her persevere. In 'The Shadow of Your Smile' and 'The Lost Years,' Catholicism was a central element of the story versus the background of the central character."

But does this make Higgins Clark a "Catholic writer" or a writer who happens to be Catholic?

"I'm a writer who happens to be Catholic," she said. "It's no surprise that the Catholic faith, which has played a large role in my life, will be a key influence on my characters."

In a 2006 critical review of Higgins Clark's work, one author noted her tendency to write primarily about "very nice people" confronted with the forces of evil, and yet work their way to deliverance through their own courage and persistence.

Higgins Clark says her characters combine courage and often faith to find a way out of their predicaments. As to her use of Catholic protagonists and heroines, she points to a piece of advice she received as a young writer in a workshop. "My professor said, 'Write what you know.' I'd grown up observing examples of Catholic women who were strong figures and persevered against difficult odds. It was natural to model my characters after the people I knew."

Being in the know about the Catholic faith and its mysteries, Higgins Clark does not shy away from using elements such as prayer and the miraculous in her fiction. "The Shadow of Your Smile," for example, introduces a miracle cure as a plot element in the author's story of intrigue and murder involving ancient church manuscripts. Here, a supporting character, Dr. Monica Callaghan, marvels at the faith of an anguished mother as her young son Michael apparently overcomes terminal cancer.

"I cannot understand why I was so resistant to the idea that the power of prayer was the cause of Michael's return to health," the character Monica proclaims. "I was a witness to the absolute act of faith of his mother when I told her he was terminally ill. It was arrogant of me to be so dismissive of her faith, especially since the proof of it is her eight-year-old healthy little boy."

Higgins Clark had "zero reservations" about having one of her characters admit to the possibility of miracles. "As a physician, Monica believes in the power of medicine and treatment to heal," Higgins Clark told CNS. "It's natural for her to think that there has to be some rational explanation for why a terminally ill young boy is now healthy. In her mind, she had to progress to the recognition that there is another source of healing outside traditional medicine: faith that can produce miracles."

Another strong influence on Higgins Clark's work is what singer Billy Joel would term a New York state of mind. Higgins Clark was reared on the streets and in the Catholic schools of the Bronx. She attended St. Francis Xavier School and the Villa Maria Academy, at the time administered by the Congregation of Notre Dame.

Listing the author's many awards and honorary degrees would take a column in itself. However Higgins Clark's church-affiliated awards include a Dame of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, a Dame of Malta, a Lady of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a Graymoor Award from the Franciscan Friars, and a Christopher Life Achievement award.

Today Higgins Clark attends Mass at St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in Saddle River, New Jersey. In a salute to the parish community, Higgins Clark once incorporated its pastor, Msgr. Frank Del Prete as a character in her book "I've Got My Eyes on You."

It's little wonder the positive experience of the writer's Catholic faith is clearly expressed in her large body of work. The main characters are courageous and upright, the church is portrayed as a place of comfort, inspiration and refuge, and nary a profane word is ever heard in the dialogue. The happy endings that characterize the vast majority of Higgins Clark's stories are justified by the author's basic sense of justice and goodness prevailing over evil.

And while Higgins Clark is no simple apologist for the faith, she can still joke about her fiction not putting the church in a bad light.

"I don't recall if I've ever created a character that was Catholic and a villain," she said. "If I did, I hope I portrayed him or her as a fallen-away Catholic."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019