Book Review: Nighttime Is My Time by Mary Higgins Clark

Nighttime Is My Time by Mary Higgins Clark
Nighttime Is My Time
by Mary Higgins Clark
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2004
Read by Jan Maxwell

I got really into the TV show American Chopper some years back. I don’t have any interest in motorcycles and I couldn’t care less about the family drama between the stars of that show. But I loved watching it. I loved watching genuinely skilled people create their visions.

I love watching master craftspeople at work.

There’s joy in witnessing that level of skill. This is why I love shows about carpentry, home renovation, car mods, tattooing. It’s one of the many reasons why I love music, dance, theater, and athletics. It doesn’t matter if any of these interest me personally, I’m fascinated watching people who love doing them. Any human endeavor which requires skill to do well, is worth witnessing.

Reading Nighttime Is My Time by Mary Higgins Clark reminds me of watching American Chopper. She crafts her stories. Her control of plot and pacing and structure, how she manipulates the reader to place suspicion on different characters at different times, her myriad misdirections, how she builds the tension. She shows her work and gives us a ring-side seat to her creative process.

I enjoy witnessing her craft.

That being said, Nighttime Is My Time isn’t a very good book. I listened to the audiobook and the narration by Jan Maxwell is excellent. But the book itself drove me a bit nuts.

Too many of the characters are either despicable, dumb, or both. This isn’t, in itself, a problem—despicable and dumb characters can still be interesting. But it’s a problem when characters are despicable or dumb because the plot requires it in order for the story to work.

Clark works hard to convince the reader that the main character in this book is smart, strong, and capable. But the character spends a shocking amount of time being oblivious, making dumb decisions, exercising exceedingly poor judgement. We’re supposed to root for her, admire her—we’re not supposed to see her as someone dumb. But she does dumb things over and over because the story would fall apart if she acted sensibly.

I don’t care how hard an author tries to convince me a character is smart and admirable, I’m not going to root for them when I spend so much of the book yelling at them to stop being an idiot.

Most of the secondary characters are horrible people. I don’t need to like the characters to enjoy the book, and horrible people can be fascinating. But the only reason they’re all reprehensible is because Clark makes most of them viable suspects at one point or another—they have to be bad so the reader can believe they could all be murderers. But none of them are bad in ways that make them interesting characters.

There are essentially two ways you can approach characters and storytelling: You can come up with interesting characters, put them in a fraught situation, and watch how they handle it. Or you can come up with a good story and then build the characters to suit the story’s needs.

Neither method is intrinsically better or worse, and both can result in stellar work. But even with the story-first, characters-second method, your characters still need to be interesting and dimensional.

Clark’s characters just aren’t. They’re marionettes to the needs of the story and their character traits have little do with anything else.

It doesn’t help, either, that she sets up so many different people as the possible murderer. Any of them would make perfect sense, so it doesn’t much matter who it turns out to be. The final reveal has no punch.

There are redeeming qualities here:

This book is basically a series of deflections, as Clark makes you suspect one person, then another, then another, and then back to the first suspect again, and and and, through an impressively large cast of characters. I love all the techniques she employs: the red herrings, the character flaws, the conflicts, the lies and alibis and suspicions. For all her obvious manipulations, it’s not easy to guess whodunit—and being manipulated is much of the joy. This is where her writing craft shines.

The novel is perfectly paced, with a well balanced blend of macabre and intimate, humane and monstrous.

There are some characters who are wonderful: the seasoned detective, the supportive neighbor from the main character’s past, the infuriating high school wanna-be journalist. I was happiest when I got to spend time with them.

And I’ll listen to just about anything Jan Maxwell narrates. She’s got a good voice.

The story in Nighttime Is My Time is fine, and very well crafted, but it’s rote. And not enough of the characters are interesting enough to make up for that. The main character is infuriatingly oblivious for no good reason and too many of the rest of the cast are horrible and tepid.

I’ll probably keep reading an occasional Mary Higgins Clark book because I do enjoy them. But I’ll give this one a miss next time around.

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