I've been a professional librarian for almost 35 years and it occurred to me recently that perhaps it was somewhat unseemly that I had never read anything written by Mary Higgins Clark. Since I was ready for yet another audiobook, I decided to pick up her most recent non-Christmas title, I'll Walk Alone. I did this in spite of the fact that the brief description on the audiobook box warned me that I would be spending my time with a main character who was a young and successful interior designer, one of those careers that sends up a huge red flag for me when I am trying to decide what mystery novel to read next.
And it only got worse from there - Zan (short for Alexandra), has an ex-husband who not only owns his own PR firm, but his main source of income comes from his business relationship with his own current main squeeze, a nasty and self-centered rock star named Melissa. Add to the mix Father O'Brien, an elderly Catholic priest; Alvirah, a former cleaning lady who is a friend of both Zan's and Father O'Brien's and whose life changed after she won the lottery and wrote a book about being an amateur sleuth; Bartley Long, Zan's nasty, egotistical and sexually harrassing former boss and decorating mentor; and an aspiring young actress with special skill as a makeup artist and whose dying father is desperately looking for her. Then there's Penny, Alvirah's friend and fellow lottery winner who, through a totally unbelievable coincidence, gets caught up in her own amateur sleuthing adventure. There are also some standard issue law enforcement types plus an alcoholic ex-cop with a photographic memory (how handy) who works as a janitor at the same church as Father O'Brien. Oh yeah, there's also Matthew, the son of Zan and her ex-husband, who was snatched from his stroller after his teenaged babysitter fell asleep while they were hanging out in Central Park. No one, including law enforcement types, have been able to figure out what happened to Matthew and whether or not he is even still alive.
Having a child stolen from you is surely one of the worst - if not the worst - of every parent's nightmares. So given this premise - and without me giving away too much of the plot for those of you who may still plan to read this book - how did MHC squander this opportunity to write a first rate crime novel?
1. Large chunks of the dialog were stilted.
2. There was at least one easily avoided factual error - even if you believe that the Son of Sam serial killer had help from fellow cult members, he definitely was responsible for more than just "a couple" of deaths.
3. The details of the lives of the majority of the characters were just not believable to me. Zan is the only chlld of a US foreign service officer and his wife, both of whom were killed in an automobile accident in Rome when Zan was a young woman. Yes, Zan did spend her younger years traveling the globe following her father's assignments, but it's still a bit of a stretch to believe that this daughter of the middle class would not have had even one aunt, uncle, cousin or close family friend to provide a port in the storm when things turned bad for her. Not only that, but after her divorce, Zan's $50,000 inheritance would not have gotten her very far in terms of setting up her own interior design firm in Manhattan, let alone putting down the deposit on her Manhattan apartment. Then, after her son disappears, although most of her income is supposedly being spent to hire private detectives, psychics, etc. who might help her determine the whereabouts of her son, Zan still has enough money left over to carry an account at Bergdorf's - please give me a break. And, in spite of being a phenomenally talented, hard working and successful designer, Zan suffers from blackouts and a very frail emotional state. She may or may not even suffer from (drum roll, please) SPLIT PERSONALITY!!! Not to worry, however, as Zan is also beautiful which proves to be a handy little detail that comes into play as the story works itself to a close.
And this is only the main character.
4. If you haven't already guessed, the plot was extraordinarily contrived, based as it was on not just one but several totally unbelievable coincidences. The storytelling was the opposite of seamless - I could almost visualize the wheels spinning in MHC's head as the details were bent and contorted to make things work. Individual details of the story may have been believable, but when you added them all up, the sum of it all just became totally ridiculous.
5. When the identity and motive of the kidnapper are finally revealed, it was by telling rather than showing.
I feel really bad about having to write this . A number of years ago, MHC proved to be an absolutely delightful keynote speaker at the New Jersey Library Association's annual spring conference and she came across as a really nice person too. A brief perusal of her website shows her to be the recipient of eighteen honorary doctorates and the winner of an extraordinary number of awards in both the US and abroad . She turned to writing as a young widowed mother and earned her bachelor's degree only after her successful career as a writer was well under way. In today's environment of ever proliferating MFA writing programs, this is, in and of itself, pretty extrordinary.
So maybe MHC's sense of what is possible, if not probable, is a little bit more skewed than that of the rest of us; maybe for this reason alone I should be cutting her a little more slack even though I still won't be recommending I'll Walk Alone to any of my library patrons.