For a bad trip, rent a haunted house

June 22, 1994|By Susanne Trowbridge | Susanne Trowbridge,Special to The Sun

Is there anything more shamelessly manipulative than a baby-in-peril story? The cover of Mary Higgins Clark's latest novel features an illustration of an infant in a cradle, instantly alerting readers that the author is returning to the familiar ground traversed in such previous best sellers as "Where Are the Children?"

The innocent babe in "Remember Me" is 3-month-old Hannah, daughter of children's-book author Menley Nichols and her husband, Adam, an attorney. Hannah is the couple's second child; their firstborn, Bobby, was killed when his mother's car was struck by an oncoming train at a railroad crossing. Menley managed to escape physical injury, but ever since the accident she has suffered from anxiety attacks brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition most commonly associated with combat veterans but one that also afflicts victims of other types of trauma.

In an effort to escape another hot, stressful August in New York, Adam and Menley decide to rent a house on Cape Cod for the month. Their real-estate agent, an old friend of Adam's, finds them a gem of a property -- Remember House, a 300-year-old estate built by a sea captain for his young bride.

Menley is sufficiently intrigued by the old house that she chooses to make it the backdrop for her latest book. While researching the history of the dwelling, she learns the disturbing truth about the couple who first lived there.

The captain's wife, Mehitabel, was accused of adultery when she was three months pregnant with her first child. She vehemently denied the charge, but the captain took the baby, went to sea, and was away for two years. When he finally returned, he told his wife that he would not even permit his daughter to lay eyes upon her unchaste mother. Mehitabel, her spirit broken by the loss of her child, died.

Remember House still seems haunted by its tragic past. A cleaning lady sees the cradle rocking by itself, and the baby sitter spots a ghostly figure up on the widow's walk. Menley, meanwhile, begins to fear that her own fate may echo Mehitabel's -- she may be separated from her beloved child.

She is still beset by hallucinations and bouts of anxiety, causing her psychiatrist and husband to feel that hospitalization may be necessary. After all, Adam's work often forces him to stay over in the city, and he's not sure if Menley can manage on her own, or if his daughter will be safe with her mentally ill mother.

During their stay on the cape, the couple becomes involved with Scott Covey, a young widower who has been accused of murdering his very rich wife. Convinced of his innocence, Menley persuades Adam to take his case. As Adam prepares Scott's legal defense, a particularly dogged local policeman is working just as hard to prove his guilt.

As always, Ms. Clark knows how to make her readers keep turning the pages. The chapters are short, the pacing is brisk, and there are plenty of puzzles to ponder (most intriguingly, what is a woman with Alzheimer's desperately attempting to convey to Menley?). Even when the solution to the book's primary mystery becomes fairly obvious, you'll still be itching to know how all the loose ends will be tied up.

As for the baby's fate, bear in mind that Ms. Clark isn't Stephen King. She's simply out to provide a few mild flurries of excitement, rather than trying to shock people senseless. Like a Cape Cod vacation, "Remember Me" is a satisfying summertime escape.

Ms. Trowbridge is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Remember Me"

Author: Mary Higgins Clark

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 306 pages, $23.50

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