On my way home on the el tonight, I sat next to a nice woman reading Carol O’Connell’s Bone by Bone. I know she was nice because she didn’t mind when I interrupted her to comment that I’d just read the ARC for O’Connell’s new book, The Chalk Girl. She was happy to meet another fan and eager to hear there was another Mallory book on its way. She’s one of the readers who like a little challenge in their reading. Not surprisingly, she was smart, too – a professor at DePaul.
Families, good, bad, and self-made, are at the heart of the new Carol O’Connell book featuring the oddly compelling progatonist Kathy Mallory. The eleventh book in the Mallory series, The Chalk Girl is a welcome return after her successful standalone that my el-mate was reading, Bone by Bone. I’m an O’Connell fan, and it was with eager anticipation that I opened the Advanced Reading Copy I received in my goody bag at Murder and Mayhem in Muskego. It did not disappoint. The Chalk Girl‘s pub date is January 17, but you can preorder now. I recommend you do so.
The book opens with a bang, when a Manhattan private school outing to Central Park is over-run by rats, thanks to a over-zealous exterminator. In the chaos thus created, the NYPD deals with the natural-but-gory death of the schoolteacher while Mrs. Ortega, housecleaner of Mallory series regular Charles Butler, notices a pervy guy stalking a small, grubby girl with bright red curly hair. She deals with him and sets the police searching for the girl. Finding her, they also discover an almost-dead body hanging, cocoon-like, from a tree in the Ramble.
Who is the man in the tree? What is his relationship to Coco, the little girl? The story gets more complex with each page, with the discovery of more victims, intimations of past crimes and childhood cruelty that reverberate into the present. Who is the man they call the Hanging Artist? Only Coco saw him.
It’s a compelling read and although it helps to have read previous Mallory books, it’s not required. (Feel free to spend the next six weeks reading O’Connell’s backlist, though! Your local librarian would love to see more of you.)
Adopted as a child by police detective Louis Markowitz and his wife, Helen, Kathy was a feral child who grew up to be a fiercely intelligent sociopath who channels her energy into solving crimes while keeping the world – especially those who would love her – at bay. Returning in The Chalk Girl are her deceased dad’s poker buddies, Lt. Riker, and the heartbreakingly lovable giant of a savant, Charles Butler.
The little homeless girl, subsequently found to have been kidnapped by “Uncle Red,” one of the Hanging Artist’s victims, is a compelling character. O’Connell has given Coco Williams’ Syndrome, a genetic abnormality that causes short stature, unusual facial features, and an overly friendly, boundary-less nature that puts her at risk. Williams’ Syndrome individuals have a strong affinity for music, and Coco’s musical insight helps Mallory solve one of the intertwined mysteries in The Chalk Girl.
She fastens onto Mallory as a baby duck imprints on Mama duck. Mallory uses the girl’s affection, hard-heartedly playing the girl to get the information she needs to solve the mystery and subverting Charles’ efforts to protect her. Or does she? Coco is convinced that Mallory loves her. And we begin to wonder, as well. Other compelling characters include:
- the Bledsoe family – thank your lucky stars you were not raised in their home!
- ex-musician/ex-con/sad guy Toby Wilder – did he commit the crime he did the time for?
- socialite/head case Wilhelmina Fallon – picture a sadistic Paris Hilton
- Annie Mann – agoraphobe, detective’s wife, why does no one know she exists?
- Ernest Nadler – perpetually 13, hands in his pockets, and always by Phoebe Bledsoe’s side. He speaks but she never answers.
O’Connell is a master of pacing, spinning the story web out, drawing it back, weaving the strands in a way that both advances the plot and reveals the characters. It’s a compliment to her that after 11 books, the reader has not tired of the Mallory enigma. How is it that a woman who never shows love is loved by so many? Is she even capable of love?
The key is that the books are not all about Mallory. We don’t know Mallory’s thoughts, and the reader often discover what she’s done long after the fact, when it comes to the attention of another character. Writing in third person, O’Connell reveals the mysterious Mallory through her actions and how others see her, while giving us plenty of other interesting characters and a twisty, complex plot to unravel.
Like cozies? You probably won’t like this book. Like police procedurals? You’ll be drawn in to this book. Like flawed protagonists? You’ll love this book.