NIGHTTIME IS MY TIME.
By Mary Higgins Clark. Simon & Schuster. 370 pp. $25.95
As pointed out in Book World's May 2 Summer Forecast, readers hardly need to be reminded that Mary Higgins Clark's latest spring offering is here. Nighttime Is My Time brings to 29 the number of novels to bear her name, novels that have routinely graced bestseller lists and earned her numerous awards and the title Queen of Suspense. It is equally significant that Clark, an icon in the mystery field, has been generous with her time and attention to numerous younger writers, as evidenced by an award she and her publisher have sponsored since 2001 to recognize new talented authors, including Barbara D'Amato, Judith Kelman, Rose Conners and M.K. Preston, who follow the vein of suspense Clark has so expertly mined.
In a recent interview, Clark attributed her popularity to readers' ability to "walk in the shoes of the character." In the guidelines for eligibility to win the award that bears her name, Clark spells out the makings of a good suspense novel: "A very nice young woman, 27-38 or so, whose life is suddenly invaded. She is not looking for trouble -- she is doing exactly what she should be doing. She solves her problem by her own courage and intelligence. She's in an interesting job. She's self-made -- independent -- has primarily good family relationships. No on-scene violence. No four-letter words or explicit sex scenes."
Nighttime Is My Time hews to this formula by creating an admirable protagonist, Jean Sheridan, a historian and author of a well-received book on Abigail Adams, then adds other elements to which virtually every reader can relate. Jean is returning to her hometown to be honored at the 20-year reunion of her class at Stonecroft Academy, a private school in upstate New York. But one of the six other honorees won't be attending the festivities. Hollywood agent Alison Kendall has been murdered in the book's opening pages by a man who had the resources to travel repeatedly to Los Angeles to stalk her before he drowned her in her own swimming pool.
Alison's death strikes Jean hard. The two had been friends and part of a group of girls known for lunching together, their good looks and their cruelty to boys in the school. Typical high school behavior perhaps, but, like the boys of Columbine, Alison's killer has nursed a grudge over how the girls taunted him, most specifically for taking advantage of his stage fright when he played an owl in a school play. This murderer's vengeance, planned and implemented over two decades, calls for killing each lunch-table girl, and other unrelated women, and leaving no "signature" to alert law enforcement, save the little pewter owls he places undetected near their bodies, a "silent reminder of his visit, a calling card that everybody always missed." And although he readily admits to himself that Jean was the only girl who was kind to him, in fact had enough family problems of her own to have been ridiculed herself, our serial killer (who calls himself, unsurprisingly, The Owl) has decided she too must die.
A reunion saddened by the tragic loss of a friend, a loss readers know is murder; the resourceful, successful heroine who has risen to the heights of her profession but must struggle to save herself and her daughter from the killer; the disappearance of actress Laura Wilcox, another honoree, before the reunion is over; a stalking serial killer who sits among the unsuspecting as a classmate and friend -- Clark enlists these and other trademark devices to ratchet up the empathy and suspense.
While her fans may be delighted as the red herrings and misdirections pile up in chapters so short that their white space consumes a hefty percentage of the novel's pages, for this reader so much exposure to the killer's habits, thoughts and actions undermines the novel's plausibility. While he may call himself The Owl and wear a frightening feathered headdress, it's unlikely that the kidnapped Laura wouldn't allow herself to say his name, even to herself, regardless of his admonitions not to speak it aloud. Implausible, too, is Sam Deegan, an about-to-retire veteran investigator in the D.A.'s office, whose inability to link past and present crimes is troubling. So is his tendency to share information with suspects and people unassociated with the case, including a nosy reporter for the high school paper whose sole purpose seems to be to move the plot along when the action gets sluggish.
Clark's successful contributions to the genre clearly indicate that she knows, and has done, better work. And while diehard fans may not object as Nighttime Is My Time wends it way to its inexorable conclusion, others who wish for more sizzle in their suspense or more spine-tingling entertainments may want to wait for Clark's next novel or try D'Amato, Kelman or the others whom she has so graciously encouraged. *
Paula L. Woods is a book critic and author of the Charlotte Justice mysteries, including "Dirty Laundry," the latest in the series.