Monday, October 25, 2010

In the Spotlight: Mary Higgins Clark's While My Pretty One Sleeps

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. It’s always interesting when crime fiction also contains elements of other genres, so I was excited when Rayna at Coffee Rings Everywhere suggested that I put Mary Higgins Clark’s While My Pretty One Sleeps in the spotlight. Let’s take a closer look at the way Higgins Clark blends genres to tell a crime fiction story in this novel.

As the novel begins, we learn about the murder of Ethel Lambston, a famous New York gossip columnist. At first, no-one knows that she’s died. She lives alone and she’s known for acting on whims, so no-one is concerned at not having seen her. The first hint that there might be trouble comes when she never comes to pick up her latest order at Neeve’s Place, a very upscale boutique owned by Neeve Kearny.

Neeve is the daughter of former Police Commissioner Myles Kearny. She’s always had a keen eye for clothes and design, and has become respected in New York’s fashion world as a highly talented up-and-coming clothier. Ethel Lambston has depended on Neeve to provide her with a stylish and well-designed wardrobe, and that’s why Neeve becomes concerned when Ethel never picks up her newest order at the boutique. After a few days of anxious waiting, Neeve begins to believe that something is wrong. This is when she decides to do a bit of her own investigating. Little by little, with help from some friends and acquaintances she makes, Neeve begins to piece together the last few weeks of Ethel Lambston’s life. As she does, she finds out that more than one person had a motive for murder. There’s Ethel’s bitter ex-husband and his new wife, her nephew, who’s due to inherit, several designers whose secrets Ethel was going to publish, and an organized crime connection. When Ethel’s body is discovered, it turns out that Neeve’s instinct was all too accurate. The closer Neeve gets to the truth, the closer she gets to real danger as the killer becomes aware that Neeve may be the only person who can make the connection between the victim and the killer. In the end, Neeve finds out who killed Ethel Lambston, and how that murder is connected to a tragic incident in her own past.

One of the elements that runs throughout this novel is the crossing, you might say, of genres. While My Pretty One Sleeps is most definitely a crime fiction novel. There’s a murder, there’s an investigation, there’s a sleuth, and so on. But you could also call it a romance novel. Neeve Kearny is single, and although it’s not belaboured in the book, she’s never really been able to make a deep and permanent commitment to anyone. In the course of her investigation, Neeve meets Jack Campbell, who works for Givvons and Marks, a publishing house. Not long before her death, Ethel Lambston had approached Campbell about publishing a tell-all book about the fashion world, and Neeve thinks that Jack Campbell may have some information about her disappearance. The two begin to see each other, first professionally and then romantically. It turns out that the two have met before, and Jack was never able to forget Neeve. Their developing relationship turns out to be a sub-plot that runs throughout the novel.

So does the relationship that develops between Myles Kearny and Kitty Conway, a real-estate professional who makes the grisly discovery of Ethel Lambston’s body. Myles was devastated at the loss of his first wife, Renata, and until he meets Kitty, hadn’t found anyone else. Neither had Kitty, who lost her first husband Michael. As the novel evolves, we see Myles and Kitty become aware of their growing feelings for each other and so, start to heal.

Another element woven through this novel is the connection between past and present. Renata Kearny was brutally murdered when Neeve was a child. Her murder has never been solved, and her loss has tragically affected both Neeve and her father. As Neeve begins to unravel the mystery of Ethel Lambston’s death, we slowly become aware that that murder is related to the murder of Renata Kearny.

It’s more than just that connection, though, that ties past to present. In several places in the novel, Higgins Clark uses flashbacks to reveal Renata Kearny’s background and personality, and the circumstances of her death. For instance, at one point, Neeve is making a buying trip to New York’s fashion district:

“And once again Renata drifted into her mind. Renata in a black velvet Victor Costa, going to a New Year’s Eve party with Myles. Around her throat she’d worn her Christmas present, a pearl necklace with a cluster of small diamonds.

‘You look like a princess, Mommy,’ Neeve had told her. That moment had been imprinted on her memory. She’d been so proud of them. Myles, straight and elegant with his then prematurely white hair; Renata, so slender, her jet-black hair piled in a chignon.”

In fact, by the end of the story, Renata Kearny has become almost as real a character as the living ones. We get a strong sense of the kind of person she was, and what she was like.

Along with the genre duality and use of the past, Higgins also gives readers a vivid picture of New York City:

“She walked rapidly from Madison to Fifth Avenue and decided to cut through the park at Seventy-ninth Street….Madison Avenue had still been busy with cars and pedestrians. On Fifth, the taxis and limousines and shiny town cars whizzed by quickly, but on the est side of the street, bordering the park, there were few people. Tossing her head as she approached Seventy-ninth Street, Neeve refused to be deterred.”

New York City serves as a dramatic backdrop to the events of the novel; its unique character is an essential ingredient in the story. Readers get the sense that the story wouldn’t really have “fit” in another setting.

The same is true of Higgins Clark’s use of a professional setting. In this case, the fashion industry serves as an important element in this novel. As Neeve Kearny sifts through the clues that lead her to Ethel Lambston’s killer, we learn about how the fashion industry works, and we get a “behind-the scenes” look at what it’s like:

“Monday was Neeve’s usual time to spend on Seventh Avenue. She loved the bizarre bedlam of the Garment District, the crowded sidewalks, the delivery trucks double-parked on the narrow streets, the agile delivery boys manipulating racks of clothes through the traffic, the sense of everyone rushing, no time to spare.”

Higgins Clark uses the fashion industry of New York City as the backdrop to weave together a murder mystery and romance, and ties together this “package” with strong connections between past and present. But what’s your view? Have you read While My Pretty One Sleeps? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

As ever, if there’s an author or novel you’d like to see in the spotlight, please leave a comment or send me an Email.

Coming Up on In The Spotlight

Monday 1 November/ Tuesday 2 November – A Study in Scarlet – Arthur Conan Doyle

Monday 8 November/Tuesday 9 November – In a Dark House – Deborah Crombie

Monday 15 November/Tuesday 16 November – Readers’ Choice! You can cast your vote at the poll on my sidebar. Whichever novel gets the most votes by Monday, 1 November gets the spotlight :-).


  1. On a sidenote, because you're doing Study in Scarlet next week, did you happen to catch A Study in Pink on Masterpiece?

    Well, I'm glad you did a Clark novel because I have to read two for a challenge and I might chose this one.

    I love the romance/mystery combo and I love that it's set in NY. I love NYC! I just my choose this one.


  2. Clarissa - No, I didn't catch that Masterpiece show; I hope it was good :-).

    How interesting that this was the week I happened to pick to deconstruct this novel, when you've decided to do a challenge that includes two Clark novels - odd co-occurrence...

    I think you will like this book if you like Higgins Clark. It's one of her older ones, but I think it really shows her style, so to speak.

  3. Love this and MHC. I've only read Where Are the Children--well I dissected it for writing purposes.

  4. Teresa - Isn't she a fine writer? I can imagine you had lots of fun taking apart Where Are the Children...

  5. I haven't read this one, but I'm listening to another MHC after many years' break from her, and I have to say they're all pretty similar. Woman in danger, who to trust?, solution tied to woman's childhood, romance, NYC, etc. -- and many of them even have lines from old songs as the title. Not really sure how she continues to find variations within these themes, but apparently she does because people are still reading them!

  6. I haven't read this book by MHC but I've read several of her others and always enjoyed them. I enjoy the fact that books combine mystery, murder and romance all together. Sometimes when a book is put under one genre heading, readers want give it a try because they don't read that genre. It's their loss for not trying something different. Your spotlight is great.

    One writer to consider spotlighting later, the late Stephen Cannell. I loved all of his TV series, but I've never read any of his books yet. Just wondering how his books compare to his series writing.

    Thoughts in Progress

  7. Karen - It is interesting, isn't it, how authors can innovate on a similar theme so that they continue to attract readers. And of course, being the music lover that I am, I really do like that she uses music lyrics as titles. Can you imagine that? Using song lyrics to title something?...

    Mason - I like it, too, when an author can combine parts of different genres. It's not always successful but when it is, it can work well. You're right, too, that sometimes, one or another genre label will put readers off when they might really enjoy a novel. A simple switch of label can make all the difference, can't it? That's the big problem, really with "pigeonholing" books.

    Thanks, too, for your suggestion of Stephen J. Cannell as an author to spotlight. He did a series about a former L.A.P.D. cop-turned-private-investigator named Shane Scully, and it really would be interesting to take a look at his writing. Thanks.

  8. I have read a few of MHC's books but not this one, I must admit sometimes I think she goes overboard (for me) on the romance elements. Though I do quite like her 'cosy' books about the woman who won the lottery - they're sweet and light and good Christmas-time reading.

    Looking forward to your spotlight on Mr Holmes next week - he is one of my favourite characters ever.

  9. Very intriguing! I'll have to pick this one up and check it out. Thanks!

    And great to find your blog through Michele Emrath's around the world blogfest. :o)

  10. Bernadette - I understand what you mean. People do have differing tastes when it comes to how much romance is "overboard." This one didn't overdo it for me, but then, I have certainly read some novels that did do that (at least for my taste). And thanks for reminding me of the Alvirah Meehan mysteries :-). They are delightful cosy stories...

    I'm actually looking forward to next week's edition, too. Although, as you know, I'm a confirmed Agatha Christie addict, the first mystery story I really read (apart from the Nancy Drew kind of thing) was Arthur Conan Doyle's The Red-Headed League. It was then that I met Sherlock Holmes, so to speak, and we've been great friends since then :-).

    Jackee - How nice of you to take an interest in my blog - thanks :-) - and welcome. And how creative of you to offer a vlog about the Southwest. Folks, do check it out! I might just have to post a vlog myself sometime....

  11. Clarissa, if I am not mistaken, you were the inspiration for the piece. You'd asked Margot for advice on which books to choose, and I had commented on Margot's comment to you.

    Margot- it has been a long time since I read the book, but your Spotlight made it all come alive for me again. And strangely, the character I remember best is Renata (I picture her as Audrey Hepburn somehow), and her drawings of colourful fish. The book was a great read, and if MHC read your post, she would love it as much as I do.

    Thank you.

  12. Rayna - You have such a fine memory :-). Well, you and Clarissa are both valued friends.

    How interesting that you remember Renata so clearly. She is a very vivid character, isn't she, although she's not even alive. Those sketches of hers are also powerful; they stuck with me, too, actually. It's funny you picture her as looking like Audrey Hepburn; that's very much the picture I got of her, too :-).

    And thank you for the very kind words about the post *Blush*...

  13. Sure looks like a great book and a great author. Will read this one ASAP.

    BTW, great point about the combining of two genres.

    Romance has a tendancy to blossom in stressful conditions especially in those where one's in mortal danger.

    As your next spotlight is on Mr. Holmes; I'll just qoute these lines ( Romance, the Sherlock Holmes Way!) :)

    The typical one...

    She looked back at us from the door, and I had a last impression of that beautiful haunted face, the startled eyes, and the drawn mouth. Then she was gone.
    "Now, Watson, the fair sex is your department," said Holmes, with a smile, when the dwindling frou-frou of skirts had ended in the slam of the front door. "What was the fair lady's game? What did she really want?"
    -The Return of Sherlock Holmes

    The not so typical one.... :)

    To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen.... And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.
    -A Scandal in Bohemia


  14. Amey - You make quite a good point. It is quite natural for romance to develop when people are thrown together under the kind of stressful situation that a murder is. Emotions are heightened, senses are keener, and it's no wonder that people become attracted to each other under those circumstances.

    And thanks for sharing those wonderful quotes from Conan Doyle, too. What an interesting and creative way to bridge the gap between the novel I've spotlighted for this week and the one I'm planning for next week :-). And I agree: Irene Adler is far from typical, and Holmes' view of her is not typical, either...

  15. Clarissa - Oh, cool! I hope that you will really enjoy having one :-).

  16. Well, I am sure I have read this as I have read and enjoyed all of MHC (apart from the humourous ones) but I can't really remember it. I suppose that it is fairly typical of this author, that she provides a great read in all the ways you describe so well, but it is somehow hard to remember all the details after finishing a book of hers. I do like them, though, and appreciate your thoughtful analysis and post.

  17. Maxine - That's very kind of you - thanks :-). How interesting that you mention that a reader can thoroughly enjoy a book without remembering the details of it. For books or series like that, it's really more the overall impression they leave, I think, rather than a particular character, event, bit of dialogue or other detail. I'll have to think about that one, as it's a really insightful point you've made.

  18. I liked her first ten books or so, including this one. But when they began turning into a blur for me, I stopped reading them.

    A fine analysis, Margot. I often think one metropol is like the other, but I agree that in this one you really get a sense of New York. And I remember enjoying the clue that helped Neeve figure out the identity of the murderer.

  19. Dorte - Thank you :-). I agree; the clue that helps Neeve identify the killer is quite clever and, well, it makes sense. I like that about it, too. It's interesting, too that some books don't need the sense of place that others do. This one truly does benefit from the New York location; I really don't think it would have worked as well in any other way.