The novel Where are the Children? By Mary Higgins Clark falls into the genre of a suspenseful mystery. The bulk of the novel involves Nancy Harmon, the protagonist. We meet her after she has moved from California to Cape Cod and has reinvented herself. Tragedy struck Nancy Harmon's life when her children went missing, only to be found in the bay, 50 miles apart, with plastic bags over their heads. Nancy was accused of murdering them and while she spent time in prison; she was liberated via a legal loophole. Given permission to leave the state, she reinvents herself on the other side of the country. Not looking for love, she somehow finds it in the form of the realtor, Ray Eldredge, who shows her the house that she moves into. They fall in love and start a new family together, with two children, Missy and Michael. One day the delicate peace that Nancy has worked so hard to create shatters. On her 32nd birthday, the killer, the same one who murdered her first children, abducts her children from this second marriage, with plans to murder them again. Once everyone in town discovers that Nancy's kids have gone missing once more, many suspect that she's done the unthinkable and murdered her kids again. However, we find out that Nancy's first husband, Carl Harmon, the one that faked his own suicide after the trial seven years ago, has abducted the children, keeping them in a grand old house called the Look Out. After putting together some clues, Nancy returns to the house to confront the killer, who she realizes is her ex-husband. She rescues the children and Carl ends up falling off the roof and plunging to his death.
Nancy Harmon, is of course one of the major characters of the novel. Another major character is her husband, Ray Elredge. A minor character is Dorothy Prentiss, Ray's assistant at the realty office and family friends. An additional minor character is the villain, Carl Harmon. The novel is set in Provincetown, on the other side of Cape Cod bay in the early 1970's. This is apparent because certain characters such as Rob Legler, refer to avoiding the draft for the Vietnam War.
After reading the book, the primary theme appears to be the power of the past and how the past can easily come back to haunt you. Nancy Harmon was clearly a woman not simply haunted by the tragic events of her first marriage, but also by certain traumas which occurred during her childhood. The novel seems to be alluding to the fact that if you don't properly deal with the harsh realities of the past and confront them for what they are, the past can easily float back up to the surface. A minor theme that the books seemed to try to convey was the necessity of taking advantage of the present. Minor characters like Dorothy Prentiss and Jonathan Knowles think often of calling each other up for a date or meeting, but don't. Other minor characters such as Mrs. Wiggins, who sees Carl Harmon steal a can of baby powder, don't act on their hunches immediately.
Mary Higgins Clark was born and raised in New York City. She attributes this as the reason why so many of her novels take place there, or as why so many of her characters are from there in an interview on the Simon and Shuster website. In fact, in Where are the Children? The minor character, Jonathan Knowles, plays a lawyer from New York City, who relocates to Cape Cod after his wife dies. She's a devout Catholic, which explains why many of her characters often express similar religious beliefs and faith. For example, John Kragopoulos comforts Dorothy by saying, "There is little that I can say except to remind you that a merciful and loving God is aware of your pain and the agony of the parents. He will not fail your need" (149). Clark has known much tragedy in her life: her father died when she was ten years old and her first husband died when she was 35, leaving her to raise their five children on her own. This might explain why she's able to create stories that are so vivid with so much at stake. Because Clark is no stranger to hardship and tragedy, she can recreate events in these fictional worlds where characters have to go through various forms of suffering and still come out all right in the end, just as Clark herself did. Clark possesses a rigorous work ethic, shown not only in prolificness, but in the fact that she would wake up at 5am to write for two hours before her children woke up.
Clark's credibility is not simply in the fact that she has written numerous worldwide bestsellers, but according to the Simon and Schuster website, "In the U.S. alone, her books have sold over one million copies." However, a great deal of her credibility is seen within the novel itself, as she is able to deftly spin numerous interwoven plots and characters into a delicate and graceful web.
The climax begins when all the loose ends begin to tie together. This is incredibly satisfying for the reader, as the reader has known all along who has taken the children and the confrontation of Nancy with the villain, Courtney Parrish, is quite fulfilling.
Mrs. Wiggins, acting off of a bad gut feeling, wants to report a shoplifter who stole a can of baby powder from her shop that morning. As she walks into the police station, the police are questioning Rob Legler, the clear lowlife who was returning to see if he could coax some money out of Nancy. It is just then that he reports to having seen someone driving a station wagon away from Nancy's house right around the time the kids went missing. These are enough details to give the reader the hope that someone is going to put it together that the kids are with Parrish over at the Lookout.
Clark aggravates this desire even more so as we then read about Michael, still entrapped, calling his mother asking for help. Although, the line is cut off before Nancy can find out where he is or how to help him. Frustratingly enough, no one is around to witness this phone call or otherwise alleviate suspicion that murdered her children. Tensions heighten even more, as the reader reads about Nancy telling all of this to her friend Dorothy and then with a clever bit of detail, Clark has her protagonist relay a crucial detail. Nancy mentions that she had her daughter Missy wear mittens outside and that one mitten had been left behind. This is a pivotal moment in that builds straight towards the climax as we are told that: "Dorothy's face was working convulsively. 'What did you say?' she demanded. 'What did you say about the mittens?'" (250). At this point Dorothy explains that she found the mitten at The Lookout, thinking she had kicked it out of her car.
Clark then writes something pleasantly ambiguous, stating that Nancy replies, "The Lookout… where that Parrish man lives. I don't think I've ever seen him except from a distance. Oh no!' In an instant of total clarity, Nancy saw the truth and realized it might be too late (251). At this moment in the story, the reader can't be completely sure that Nancy realizes that it's her first husband who's behind all of this or if she simply realizes that her children have been abducted by this Parrish man and might be dead.
From that moment on Nancy is in full action and seems to be living one of the themes of the past: that if you don't properly deal with the past, it will come back to haunt you. It is at this climactic scene that she truly has to go back and fight her former demons. Furthermore, it's refreshing for the reader to finally see her in a state of empowerment. From the moment she realizes that her kids are missing, she's practically catatonic, perhaps understandably so, but at the same time it can be somewhat frustrating for the reader that she doesn't do more than simply babble and blather things like: "I'm afraid…" or "The children… the children…" (131).
When Nancy arrives at The Lookout, the old key somehow turns the rusty lock and she enters the pitch black foyer. This is very fitting symbolism for the character revisiting her extremely dark past and need to face its harshness. During this dark walk up the stairs to find her children, Nancy has another very revelatory memory, thinking of her first, now deceased daughter, Lisa. "Lisa had clung to her that last morning. "Daddy hurt me" was all she would say. Nancy was sure that Carl had spanked her for wetting the bed… had cursed herself for being too tired to wake…