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The Making of a Mary Higgins Clark Novel

Crime novelist and co-author Alafair Burke reflects on working with the Queen of Suspense on their 8 books written together

spinner image Mary Higgins Clark sitting at table with papers in front of her, vase with flowers to the side
Mary Higgins Clark, seen here in 1976 in New York City, died in 2020. Clark co-authored the Under Suspicion book series with fellow crime writer Alafair Burke.
Getty Images

On the publication day for It Had to Be You, which I co-authored with Mary Higgins Clark, I've been recalling fond memories of my time working with the heralded Queen of Suspense.

I had met Mary only once when I was invited to meet for lunch to discuss collaborating on a new series of novels she had in mind. The No. 1 New York Times bestselling author whose books I had read since I was a child had read my work and thought we might be good writing partners. Once I managed to un-drop my jaw, it was the easiest yes I’d ever give.

spinner image Marysue Rucci and Mary Higgins Clark
Mary Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke collaborated on the Under Suspicion series.
Courtesy: Marysue Rucci

But then we found ourselves in a jam. I had never coauthored fiction before, and when Mary had, it was with her daughter, Carol.

“How’d you and Carol do it?” I asked.

Mother and daughter would sit and write each word together, side-by-side. Well, apparently Mary wasn’t ready for her new coauthor to move in to replicate that process, so we needed another plan. We decided to let the characters lead the way. Before writing a word, we would meet for hours and hours in multiple sessions at her home in Saddle River, New Jersey, or at the publishing offices of Simon & Schuster, identifying every character in the story, their secrets and motives, the backstabs and lies. Eventually the characters had a way of revealing the ending and all the satisfying twists along the way. With time, our writing meetings approached the level of storytelling telepathy, the two of us building on each other’s thoughts so quickly that I had trouble keeping up with the note-taking. Only then did the writing begin, passing pages back and forth — two writers with a single story to tell in a blended voice, centered on the work of our character: journalist Laurie Moran, a young widow and mother whose television show, Under Suspicion, reinvestigates unsolved criminal cases.

The headlines of the day have sparked a renewed conversation about the ability of people to continue working well into their 70s, 80s and beyond.  When Mary and I began collaborating, she was 83 — four decades older than me. We’d start working in the morning and continue through lunch. I’d be ready to call it quits by midafternoon, proud of all we had accomplished for the day. “Let’s keep going,” she’d say, turning to the next page of the manuscript while I dreamed of a snack break. When we attended an outdoor book festival in East Hampton in August 2016, I kept sneaking off to the air-conditioned ladies’ room, but Mary remained steadfast in the heat, posing for selfies with adoring fans long after the books had sold out. And two days before she left us at the end of January 2020, at the age of 92, she and I were exchanging final pages of Piece of My Heart, our sixth book together in the Under Suspicion series. She remained a master of her craft who could work me under the table until the very end.

spinner image Book cover with words Mary Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke, It Had to be You
Alafair Burke and Mary Higgins Clark have published eight books together including “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “The Cinderella Murder,” “All Dressed in White,” “The Sleeping Beauty Killer,” “Every Breath You Take,” “You Don’t Own Me” and “Piece of My Heart.” The newest one, “It Had to Be You,” hits bookshelves April 16.
Courtesy: Simon & Schuster

But, just like a Mary Higgins Clark novel, this story comes with a plot twist. 2020 turned out not to be the end. 

Pursuant to her wishes, and in cooperation with her family and the rest of the group we call Team Clark, the characters Mary created during her lifetime have continued to lead the narrative. While writing Piece of My Heart, she and I had mapped out plans for a sequel to her iconic first mystery novel, Where Are the Children? The book wasn’t just a commercial success but an artistic one, forever transforming the genre of suspense fiction — a psychological domestic drama centered around a complex female protagonist, rare for its time. Wouldn’t readers want to know where Nancy Eldredge and her family were 40 years later? Thanks to Mary and her indelible characters, I already knew. The result was Where Are the Children Now?, which landed Mary back in her usual spot on the New York Times bestsellers list in 2023. 

Mary also had a very clear journey in mind for the character of Laurie Moran — one I’d known about for years, one I knew that readers would want to follow. In It Had to Be You (April 16, 2024, Simon & Schuster), Laurie and her team take on the unsolved murders of a respected couple celebrating the college graduations of their successful twin sons. Fifteen years later, each twin remains convinced that the other is a killer. Thanks to the characters Mary created, new and existing readers alike now have a new Queen of Suspense book to enjoy. It was a great honor and responsibility to see Mary’s vision through, and I hope that reading It Had to Be You will feel like curling up once again with a favorite and familiar author.  

Mary remarked to me early on that if the Under Suspicion series was successful, maybe she’d join the ranks of Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy and Robert B. Parker — authors whose cherished characters continued to live on beyond their creators. Even though she had years remaining to write, she already knew that her readers would miss her.

To Mary, I’m happy to say: You did it, my friend. I hope you’re enjoying a drink with Fleming, Clancy and Parker somewhere, the first woman in the club, the Queen of Suspense, celebrating your newest book — because this book is truly yours, because you left behind everything I needed to make it happen. Laurie Moran and her ensemble cast continue to live on, and for that, your readers and I are truly grateful.


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