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 :-).