The death of a child is the worst tragedy any parent could ever endure, and the aftermath can end up destroying entire families. In her new mystery novel, DADDY'S LITTLE GIRL, Mary Higgins Clark portrays the destructive effects of a 15-year-old's murder on her parents and her younger sister as they each grapple privately with the guilt of not having been able to prevent it.
Ellie Cavanaugh was only seven years old when her sister, Andrea, was murdered, yet she was the chief witness in the trial of the accused 19-year-old, Rob Westerfield, only heir of the most prominent family in town. Although there were actually three suspects who were the focus of police investigations, and Westerfield steadfastly denied he murdered Andrea, it was Ellie's testimony that resulted in his conviction and incarceration.
It's now 22 years later, and Westerfield is being paroled. He and his family are seeking a reversal of his conviction so that he can inherit his grandmother's fortune. But Ellie is desperate to find evidence to prove once and for all that he is the sick killer she always believed him to be. As an investigative reporter for an Atlanta newspaper, Ellie returns to her hometown and begins a dangerous probe into the events of that night --- an intrusion that is resented by both the Westerfield family as well as many of the local residents who never believed Rob was responsible for Andrea's death.
Ellie's investigation brings her into close contact with Rob Westerfield, who seems intent on harassing her everywhere she goes. Her apartment is broken into, her car vandalized, and her life threatened. Is Rob stalking her to prevent her from uncovering the truth? Or is the creepy handyman, one of the three original suspects and an employee of the Westerfield estate, involved somehow? And what about the mentally challenged boy who had asked Andrea for a date on that fateful night? He always seemed so harmless, but now he's terribly agitated to have the whole case resurrected, and Ellie knew how infatuated he was with Andrea. The deeper she digs into those who were involved in Andrea's life, the more confusing the facts of the case seem to be, and the less confident Ellie is that her testimony pointed the finger at the right man.
At the heart of DADDY'S LITTLE GIRL is the very human story of a family torn apart by an unspeakable crime. Attempting to cope with her own feelings of responsibility in her sister's death, Ellie reflects on the disintegration of her parent's marriage, her mother's eventual alcoholism, and her own estrangement from her father. As any of us might do, Ellie ponders the "if only's" of that night --- if only she'd told her parents about Andrea's secret rendezvous, if only her father had come home earlier that night, if only her mother hadn't been so blinded by the Westerfield's wealth. For the past 22 years, Ellie has felt torn between her guilt about what she could have prevented, and her rage that her father seemed to care so little for his remaining daughter.
Mary Higgins Clark slowly unveils the troubling family story within the tension of the murder mystery and reminds the reader that behind every tragedy there are human beings just trying to cope with events. Her mastery of the genre remains anchored in her characters, which reflect the hopes and heartaches of ordinary people who find life is sometimes beyond their control. But even as they anguish over what might have been, they eventually will find a resolution --- which is what we all are seeking, isn't it? --- a happy ending.
Reviewed by Ann Bruns on April 1, 2003