GROWING UP AS THE OFFSPRING OF A famous mystery writer can be hazardous to your ego—especially at the dinner table. "If anyone told a boring story in my family," recalls actress turned first novelist Carol Higgins Clark of herself and four rambunctious siblings, "he or she was promptly cut off."

Fortunately a gift for vivid storytelling seems to run in the genes. Carol's mother, Mary Higgins Clark, 64, is the doyenne of psychological thrillers (A Stranger Is Watching, The Cradle Will Fall, Stillwatch), all of which feature a plucky young woman who is menaced by an evil husband, a mad gynecologist, a deranged dress designer or (in Clark's 10th and biggest seller to date, All Around the Town) a crazed TV evangelist.

Now, Carol, 36—the second youngest of Clark's children by her first husband, Warren, a charter-airline executive who died in 1964—has dared to venture onto Mom's bloodstained turf, as both actress and author. Carol, who has performed in mostly supporting roles off-Broadway and in TV movies (Fatal Charm) and miniseries (Night of the Fox), can be seen this week in many cities as the beleaguered heroine of A Cry in the Night, a syndicated TV-movie adaptation of her mother's 1982 best-seller about a divorcee who remarries and is terrorized by her new spouse. Her mother created the character with Carol in mind (Mary also has a walk-on role as a churchgoer), and Carol herself hawked the screenplay, with the understanding that the lead would be hers. Says Cry director Robin Spry: "Carol has an extremely large emotional range, and she delivered."

She also scored this summer with Decked, a mystery about a famous suspense writer's feisty young daughter, Regan Reilly, who tracks a killer aboard an ocean liner. The novel has already sailed into its eighth printing.

Her mother sees little mystery in Carol's success. "I think Carol is a good writer," she says, relaxing with her daughter in the cozy 16th-story pied-à-terre they share overlooking Manhattan's Central Park. (Both are single and unattached; Carol has never been married, and Mary and her second husband, attorney Raymond Ploetz, divorced in 1986.) Carol, she adds, "has a fresh, funny voice." Still, the suspense queen was not amused by the reaction of some fans she met recently: "They asked me if I'm jealous. You know any parent worth her salt would not be anything other than delighted by her child's success!"

Besides, Clark mère has a major success of her own to celebrate: For her next four novels, plus a memoir and a short-story collection, she will receive $35 million from Simon & Schuster and Pocket Books.

It is a far city in the night from the $3,000 Clark received for 1975's Where Are the Children?, her first novel, which she wrote from 5 A.M. to 7 A.M. each day at her Washington Township, N.J., home before making her kids' breakfast and carpooling to work as a radio infotainment scriptwriter in Manhattan. When Children became a runaway hit, Mary sold the paperback rights for $ 100,000. Her second novel, A Stranger Is Watching, made her a millionaire and put all five kids through college.

It was Carol's "howlingly funny" letters home from Mount Holyoke, says Mary, that convinced her that her daughter, then an aspiring actress, also had a talent for writing. Indeed, Carol learned her mother's craft virtually at her knee. Typing the manuscripts of Mary's novels from age 18, she says, "I would point out the things that I thought were wrong, and we'd talk about what would work."

Their seminars obviously paid off for Carol, who is now researching her next novel, Snagged, a murder mystery that takes Regan Reilly to a pantyhose makers' convention in Miami Beach. Carol herself vacations with her relatives at her mother's ocean-front home on Cape Cod. They also convene for Sunday dinners at Mary's three-story Saddle River, N.J., home, where the sibs, with their broods, gather to swap stories.

Soon, inspired by Carol, they might be writing them too. Her brother David, 38, who heads a radio-syndication service, told her, "I think I'll sit down and try my hand at this." And sister Patricia, 34, an energy-brokerage assistant who used to refer to writing as "Mom's thing," says, "I have to discipline myself to try it."

"All of my children [including Marilyn, 41, a judge, and Warren, 40, a lawyer] could write if they wanted to," boasts Mary. A whole household of hair-raisers? Now there's a novel idea.

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
ANN GUERIN in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Ann Guerin.