Mary Higgins Clark

A Stranger is Watching

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A Stranger is Watching Summary

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In her novel A Stranger is Watching (1977), Mary Higgins Clark weaves together several themes overlaying a tense story of kidnapping and a classic race against time scenario.

As the story opens, an unnamed man in a hotel room is watching television. On the morning news show, he listens to an update about Ronald Thompson, who will, in fifty-two hours be the first person to be executed in years. The man watches a young woman Sharon Martin debate the death penalty with Steve Peterson, whose wife, Nina, was murdered by Ronald Thompson. Sharon is very passionately against the restoration of the death penalty, while Steve Peterson argues vehemently in favor of it. The man watching reveals his plan to kidnap Steve Peterson’s son Neil that evening, hiding him in a secret room in Grand Central Station. He had originally planned to kill Sharon Martin when he did so, because she would undoubtedly be watching Neil for her new lover, Steve. However, as he watches, he finds himself attracted to Sharon, imagining she might be in love with him, so he decides to kidnap her as well. Moreover, if she isn’t in love with him, he thinks, then he’ll just leave her there to die with the child when a bomb goes off at 11:30 p.m.

Steve and Sharon leave the studio. Steve is worried about Neil, who witnessed his mother’s murder by strangulation. Though Neil cannot remember anything about this traumatic experience, Steve can tell that Neil is suffering post-traumatic stress from it. Neil is not comfortable with Sharon in his life; he believes that if Sharon marries his father, they will leave Neil behind.

The unnamed man leaves the hotel and goes to a thrift shop. Then he heads to Steve’s home and kidnaps Sharon and Neil, transporting them to an unused and forgotten kitchen in the basement of Grand Central Station, where he locks them in with a suitcase containing a bomb. Neil, who suffers from asthma, begins to suffer an asthmatic attack as he panics. Sharon comforts him, acting in the role of mother that she has been nervous about, and for which Neil has previously rejected her.

The kidnapper enters a public restroom and is attacked by a group of young criminals. He fights them, however, he is badly beaten. He sees a vision of brown eyes, a recurring vision that always leaves him terrified. Though he has killed and raped many women without remorse, this vision always terrifies him.

Steve and the police work to track down the kidnapper. A ransom demand arrives for $82,000, which happens to be almost precisely the amount of money in a bank account generated by a life insurance claim on Nina. The police wonder if there is a connection between this crime and the murder of Nina; Steve wonders about this as well. Lally, a homeless woman, is found to be living in a secret room near the kidnapper’s lair, using a key she has found.

The unnamed kidnapper thinks about whether Sharon loves him or not, revealing that he often falls in love with women and then kills them violently if there is any hint that they do not love him back. Sharon and Neil forge a strong relationship as she cares for the boy and protects him. She suspects that the kidnapper is the man who killed Nina. They learn the bomb is timed to go off at precisely the moment that Ronald Thompson is executed.

The kidnapper ties Sharon and Neil up to guarantee they will remain until the bomb goes off and leaves the room. Lally knows other people are in the kitchen; she is upset that other people are invading her special place. Lally believes that the kidnapper and Sharon are in a relationship. She goes down determined to reclaim her special place but hides when the kidnapper emerges from the room. She thinks she has evaded him but he sneaks up behind her and stabs her. Dying, Lally crawls towards the door of her special place and opens it using her secret key.

The police and Steve learn that the kidnapper took Sharon and Neil to Grand Central Station but do not know exactly where. Lally’s friend Rosie is concerned because Lally went down to the hidden room and has not come back. Lally staggers into her secret room  and asks Sharon to remove the knife; Sharon does so and uses it to cut Neil free and orders him to run; she has hurt her ankle and cannot. Neil runs outside and sees his father and leads him back to the secret room. The kidnapper has returned, but Sharon’s screams bring Steve running.

Steve encounters the kidnapper and fights with him, finally knocking him down and rescuing Sharon just as the bomb explodes.