Where are the children? That question, in fiction at least, has become a lot more complicated over the past fifty years. That’s good for the children, not so great for the readers (or listeners).
Mary Higgins Clark had her first commercial hit in 1975 with her second novel, Where Are the Children? She would go on to gain the superlative “Queen of Suspense” and sell over 100 million books, a total that has only grown since her death in 2020 at age 92.
Her breakout book is as psychologically direct as its title implies. The reader always knows where the novel’s two abducted children are; it’s their parents who don’t. We follow twin streams of events as the children struggle against their captor while the parents frantically search, ultimately (this being the ’70s) turning to chemically-enhanced memory recovery to uncover secrets from the mother’s past that point her to the culprit.
A new sequel, Where Are the Children Now?, is billed as Clark’s last collaboration with Alafair Burke, a frequent co-author in recent years. Its title works despite the fact that only one child goes missing: we also catch up with the children from the original novel, now in their forties. Physically, Missy and Michael Eldredge moved on. Emotionally, they’re still in 1975.
The sequel’s structure is very different. Once Missy’s stepdaughter disappears, the girl’s movements — and the identity of her captor — are unknown to both the Eldredges and the reader. Missy’s career as an attorney and true crime podcast host has created plenty of potential enemies, and then there are the suspects within the family. Poor Nancy, Missy’s mother, has already endured the deaths of two children and the abduction of two others; now she has a granddaughter to worry about.
Where Are the Children Now? is suspenseful, sure, but it never generates nearly as much steam as the harrowing original. One of the reasons Clark’s early work became such a sensation was that she wasn’t afraid to put children through the wringer: her third book, A Stranger is Watching, has a boy and his would-be stepmother abducted (you may be sensing a theme) and trapped in a subterranean room with a photo of the boy’s murdered mother.
Reading, or listening to, books like that may or may not be how you want to spend your free time — but the Stranger scenario is undeniably gripping, and the boy’s need to trust his dad’s new beau creates a vector for character development. In the new book, by contrast, the angelic Riley is whisked away completely, and emerging details strongly suggest she may be perfectly safe, binging Peppa Pig while all the grownups freak out.
Though the book reprises the trope of a frightened mother figure who comes under mistaken suspicion, it also gives its adult characters more active sleuthing to do. Missy and Michael zip around playing private eye, in contrast to the original novel’s Nancy, who hovers near her phone until finally taking action near the book’s climax. For her own part, Nancy has now become a sassy grandma, totally uncowed by events that so closely echo her past traumas. Trigger? That’s just the name of Roy Rogers’s horse.
The audiobook is narrated by the iconic January LaVoy, who once again demonstrates her knack for subtle character acting. Not that there’s a lot of subtlety in the text itself, but LaVoy is extraordinarily adept at signaling different characters’ voices with modest shifts of timbre and intonation, avoiding distracting theatrics. Unfortunately, her pipsqueak Riley makes the Muppet Babies sound like golf announcers, giving us yet another reason not to miss the child too much.
Where are the children now? They’re in a good place. They’re resilient and trusting. Maybe a little…too trusting. They are, after all, the creations of the late, great Queen of Suspense.
Top image: Frederic Forrest played the captor in a 1986 film adaptation of Where Are the Children? (Columbia Pictures) Inset: Where Are the Children Now? audiobook cover (Simon & Schuster Audio).