While My Pretty One Sleeps is the eight novel in Mary Higgins Clark's succession of suspense. Each novel follows the same formulaic pattern; she begins writing the novel with the phrase "once upon a time" and develops her plot from there. Each best-selling novel includes a strong, clever woman who is the key crime- solver in a seemingly normal, ordinary situation gone awry. Her settings are not extra-ordinary; her heroine is not an evil person seeking trouble. Instead, she is an innocent victim of viscous evil, which she ultimately triumphs. While Clark is an expert at hiding evil in the last place the reader would imagine, her novels are predictable; goodness prevails over evil, and every novel follows that same rule. Her formula is obviously very successful; she is "one of the highest paid authors in America after twelve novels and five television and film adaptations later" (Contemporary Popular Writers). Clark is an expert entertainer. She knows what the readers want, she figured out how to make a best seller, and she does it time after time. Clark is truly a writer of the eighties. The movies produced in the eighties are guilty of the same thing Clark is. They were made to do "what every movie has set out to do?make money. The 1980's is referred to as "the Decade of Greed" by historians" (80s.com). Clark is a perpetuator of "The Decade of Greed". In trying to make money she designs an extremely entertaining plot full of suspense but includes the trends and details pertinent to the lives of her readers. Her story centers around "the glittering palaces of New York City" because it provided a fascinating setting that her readers were interested in. Throughout her book, Clark matches the details of her story with the details of the decade. Two of Clark's main characters, one the heroine, are the intelligent, rising career women cropping up in the eighties; the Mafia, prominent in New York society plays a major role in the plot; other top-selling entertainment of the eighties reflect similar trends in Clark's story; the economics of the time supported the society Clark investigates. She investigates all details in her books, like distances between streets to make sure the time lapse is viable and researching the psychological symptoms of her killers, and the "imaginary" society, which frames her story, is no exception. Clark claims "a good suspense novel should hold a mirror up to society" and as an author of many best-selling suspense novels, she succeeds in doing so (Contemporary Authors).
The high-fluting New York society Clark picks as a setting was on the rise in the eighties. With Ronald Reagan in office, and under new economical reforms coined "Reaganomics", abundant wealth flowed for the rich. There was a 25% tax cut, household incomes increased by $4,000 resting at $42, 049 in 1989, and the savings rate rapidly fell (Cato Policy Analysis). The economy grew by a healthy rate of 3.8% and the Economic growth per Working Age adult grew with it. The elegant cocktail parties Clark sets up, the rich fashion she copiously describes, and the luxurious interior decorations would all have been an element of life at the time. Madison Avenue and chic designers would catch the eye of the reader. Clark admits she likes to dress her characters nicely because the readers like it. The wealth of the economy at the time would allow for the fashion industry to be as large and booming as Clark relays it.
Ethel Lambston and Neeve Kearny, Clark's fictional characters, are both self-sufficient, extremely successful businesswomen. Ethel Lambston herself was very well known for her intelligence. She was a "famous gossip writer" who cleverly investigated the fashion industry and came up with "a bombshell. TNT" that would expose the leading players in the world of style. It was her clever-ness and wit that lured her into trouble. She had received "The Magazine Award of the Year from the American Society of Journalists and Authors? and at the side of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson?at the Waldorf with the mayor" and was quite worthy of her achievements (page 70). Neeve Kearny, at twenty-six, was the owner and buyer for her own "sensationally successful boutique" on the fashionable Madison Avenue in New York. Throughout the rich and glitzy society of New York's fashion industry, "Neeve's Place", and Neeve herself, are "well-liked, well respected" and famous for their renowned sense of style. For her special customers, Neeve coordinates outfits and prepares lists, Outfit A with Jewelry Box B, with Shoebox C. "Ever since [Neeve] starting dressing her, people keep commenting on [her] clothes?[she] loves it" (page 74). She sells "red cashmere coachman coats The Burberry. The herringbone cape?The Donna Karans, the Beenes, the Ultra-suedes" (74). Clark never fails to drop the names of real, authentic designers the reader will recognize. Neeve prides herself on being "written up in Vogue, Town and Country, The New York Times and God know where else" (page 113). Not only is she an entrepreneur, Neeve is also the key detective. Interestingly, Clark allows only the women to make the big discoveries in this novel, commenting on the changing image of women being just as intelligent as men. She assigns them important careers AND makes them the clever investigators. The policemen and other male figures in the novel seem to sit back while the females are the productive crime-solvers. Neeve is the very first person to suspect foul play in Ethel's disappearance. After looking in Ethel's' closet, she noticed her coats were all there. Trying to convince her doubting father of foul play, Neeve says she "knows Ethel's wardrobe like the back of [her] hand. She vanished on Thursday or Friday in bitterly cold weather without a coat?" (91-2). Neeve continues her own private investigation and discover more clues than the entire New York police force. Neeve is solely responsible for the unraveling of the mystery throughout the very end. A couple of years prior to the writing of her book, many women organizations, like the Wilmington Women in Business and the National Women's History Project, were established to "create the opportunity for recognition of achievement and potential of the business and professional women" (wwb.org). Mary Higgins Clark recognizes the achievements of women in the professional sphere in her own way by including them in her book. Perhaps this support and recognition of women's accomplishments, especially the literary accomplishments of Ethel Lambston, is a reflection of the author's own life as a literary success.
Another reason Clark's novel is important to recognize is her inclusion of the mafia as key elements of society. Throughout history, beginning at the Prohibition, there has been a fascination with mobsters and Clark includes their present day fascination. In the mid-eighties, the mafia was becoming a little less enigmatic and more understandable. As investigators trailed them, more and more knowledge about their business was discovered. There were many busts and therefore, more attention on their dealings. Throughout the novel, Clark brings in mobsters and plants "plenty of mob money being laundered through the fashion industry" (page 242). In 1985, 135 people in the United States were indicted in Chicago as part of a major heroin trafficking ring from Mexico. In the early 1980's, the leading mobster family of La Costra Notra instigated the importation of heroin worth over $1.6 billion. This operation, known as the "Pizza Connection" because it used pizza parlors throughout the country as a façade to hide their smuggling, is known as one of the largest networks in history. The main activity was centered in New York, the head of the operation named as the Bonanno organized crime family. Clark obviously researched this part of New York society and used it to spice up her story. Clark's mob characters always meet at "the club". The Mafia don planned on going "to the club first and then have a celebration lunch on Mulberry Street", a restaurant where they saw "the family" and were served pastas by Mario the owner. The club is a "shabby store front exterior with a pay telephone that everyone knew was bugged" (page 84). Clark works in the details of the authentic mafia, making the book a reflection on society. Another event Clark drew a lot from happened in July 1983, six years before her book as published. At the JFK airport, customs officials seized a kilogram of heroin rolled in newspapers and then, two other identical packages were discovered headed to Berkeley, Ca. During the eighties, heroin was typically rolled in newspapers, sealed in plastic and "sent through the mail concealed in shipments of textiles, clothing, and other durable goods" (http://druglibrary.org). Clark's own version of her fictional drug bust sounds extremely familiar. "A Korean cargo plane?was cleared for landing at Kennedy Airport. Trucks from Gordon Steuber Textiles were waiting to pick up the crates of dresses and sportswear to be transferred to Long Island City warehouses; warehouses that did not appear anywhere in company records?law enforcement officials aware that they were about to make one of the biggest drug busts of the past ten years?The seams of exquisitely tailored linen jacket were slashed. Pure, uncut heroin poured into a plastic bag" (page 258). The accuracy of which this event is portrayed shows Clark's reliance on true events of the time. She includes historical events but only for the purpose of entertainment and for the unfolding of her plot.
Clark's themes of the time are also reflected in other examples of popular culture of the eighties. The movie "Goodfellas", was released in 1990, a year after the publication of While My Pretty One Sleeps. It is also based on the life of the Mafia, with influence of the director's "growing up in New York's Little Italy" and it shows the "awe and envy of the swagger of the low-level wise guys in the social club across the street," the same social club Mary Higgins Clark's character frequented (Lycos.com). The Chicago Sun Times says it is "about what it is like to be in the mafia." Clark attempted to portray the same thing. She showed her character's despair of the underhanded dealings and the same "bad times" are shown in "Goodfellas." Another top-grossing film was "Beverly Hill Cop," released in 1984, and the same good versus evil battle. "The street smart cop unleashes his "talents" on California in "dealing with the very different culture of Beverly Hills" and gets another shot at the bad guys in Beverly Hills Cop II in 1986. In 1987, two years before Clark releases her novel, "The Untouchables" was released about two cops that hunt down Capone and his men. Like the suspense of Mary Higgins Clark, it is "a mix of biography and fiction [that] can often intensify the level of excitement" (Lycos.com). They are excellent stories although not accurate. They merely entertain. Although it said of "The Untouchables" that "a very well done story prove[s] to make this story very exciting, though not always believable," the same can be said of Mary Higgins Clark. While My Pretty One Sleeps received criticism for its unrealistic-ness although it was praised as an entertaining and suspenseful story. "The Untouchables", with its lack of truth but abundance of entertainment was nominated for four different Oscars in 1988 and won two Grammy Awards. Mary Higgins was on the right path in her aim for entertainment and disregard for literary merit. She knew where the money was. Other blockbusters were Ghostbusters in 1989, Indiana Jones and Back to the Future. They all fall under the mindset of the eighties where realism was not required but the "exciting, adrenaline-pumping joyride of life" prevailed (www.angelfire.com). Realism was not necessarily valued in a work and was not a criteria of judgment. "Murder She Wrote" was also a part of the eighties pop culture. The first segment was aired in 1984 and it proved to be the longest running detective mystery series on American Television. It was CBS's most successful show of the decade. No wonder Mary Higgins Clark's suspense novels were so successful at the same time period. The plots are so similar; "a talented but undiscovered crime-solver becomes a super-sleuth" (http://mysteries.com). The popularity of Clark's mystery novel and "Murder She Wrote" show a fascination in the culture for suspenseful sleuthing. The creation of Matlock as well in 1986 by NBC network shows the maintenance of demand in detective stories. The content of Mary Higgins Clark's stories reflect the fascinating and intriguing aspects of American society and it is her choice of subject and the way she presents it that makes her novels bestsellers.
While drawing on derivatives of eighties' popular culture made her books bestsellers, the fact that they were one of a series also contributed to their success. Clark's books are similar to John Grisham novels and Sydney Shelton novels in the fact that they all follow a certain formula. John Grisham novels are typically a version of the "David and Goliath" stories, a small time lawyer restores faith against all odds for the criminal justice system. Clark, Grisham and Shelton seem to write almost identical novels over again, with different characters and different settings. However, they are successful. Their novels are repeat bestsellers. Part of the reason their later novels are bestsellers is the quality of the previous ones. Readers buy the novel because they liked his first and want to see if the subsequent ones are just as entertaining. Clark's readers are guilty of that as well. When While My Pretty One Sleeps is compared to her other novels, it usually comes in second. Where Are the Children? is deemed unmatched by Clark in her subsequent years by critics. In many reviews, the only compliment given to the novel, after degrading its far-fetched reality, was that it was one in a series of great novels and that it added to the tradition of Clark's talent. It was seen as merely a compliment to the collection and not an asset. While My Pretty One Sleeps sells as a best seller because its author is Clark. The publishers, in creating the cover art, milked the association with author as much as possible. On both the front cover, and on the spine, the author's full name is printed in bold letters appearing significantly larger than the title. Her name occupies the dead center of the cover and the title occupies the small top portion. Also on the cover reads, "By the author of Weep No More, My Lady". This same "selling by the author" technique is employed in the marketing of the Hardy Boys books. Having been around so long, with the same formulaic writing pattern of Clark's books, they must have a selling quality. Edward Stratemeyer, who invented the idea for the Hardy Boys created the plot outlines and hired ghost writers. After the first three starter books were released, five more in the next two years, and then one per year were published in an unchanging pattern. While the Hardy Boys remain popular today, the advertising has changed. They have been around for so long, new innovative marketing strategies have been employed. They have been abridged, color art was added in the seventies, and the most recent Library collection Editions have the inflated title. The phrase "The Hardy Boys" is the name readers will recognize. The Hardy Boys' books have been selling since the thirties; the advertising technique proves successful for both them and Mary Higgins Clark.
While Mary Higgins Clark sells many copies of her books and I have explored some of the possibilities of attraction, there is one category that her genre and style explicitly violates. Her book is of no literary merit and deserves no praise for her revolutionizing style. Critics are sure to point out the predictable, never altering production of her works. In contrast, "Portnoy's Complaint" is a best-seller for the exactly the thing Mary Higgins Clark does not achieve. Philip Roth is praised as "the bravest writer in the United States. He's morally brave, he's politically brave" (Newsday). Clark clings to her comfortable limb while Roth takes the risk and writes about outrageous, lewd subjects. His novel is full of masterbation scenes and cursing. Portnoy filthily admires, " garunteed to have on her- a cunt! They all have cunts! Right under their dresses! Cunts- for fucking!" (page 102). This approach is a complete contrast to Mary Higgins Clark. She is not daring and revolutionary; she is safe and complacent. Roth's value is purely shock value. And yet, they are both best-sellers of their time.
Bestsellers are best sellers because people buy them, not because they are fine literary pieces of work. That difference is key to understanding the concept of bestsellers and key to understanding the society that delves into them. Mary Higgins Clark is an entertainer; she is predictable but obviously tells the readers what they want to hear.
The Unofficial home page of the Hardy Boys
Top-Grossing Films, Entertainment
Chicago Sun Times
Schaffer Library of Drug Policy
First Edition of Novel While My Pretty One Sleeps
Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth