Watching Mallory Grow a Soul

The Fiction of Carol O'Connell

Judas Child

Carol O'Connell is a literary phenomenon. After establishing herself in a brilliant three-novel series as an authentic, surreal voice of New York, less gritty than Andrew Vachss but no less powerful, hard-eyed, and fierce, and her central character, New York police detective Kathy Mallory as a true original in a literary landscape of eccentrics, she moved Mallory to Louisiana, searching for the "baby sociopath's" past, and wrote her into a book as Cajun Gothic as James Lee Burke's worst nightmare. Then, in case we weren't impressed, she abandoned Mallory briefly to create Ali Cray and Rouge Kendall, the central figures of Judas Child (a book heralded with the ominous admission that it was "not a Kathleen Mallory novel"), and left us as eager for more of them as we were for another Mallory novel. And we got not one, but five more Mallorys (so far, December, 2006): Shell Game [review], Crime School [review], Dead Famous [review], Winter House [review], and Find Me [review]. The fifth book in the series, Shell Game is not as compelling as the original four, but Crime School (#6) offers both fascinating development in Mallory's backstory and a tangled, puzzling series of murders. Dead Famous takes the series in some new directions, with an intimate focus on Mallory's mentor, Detective P. Riker. And Winter House is a superb entry in the series, equal to the early books. Find Me disappointed some readers and seemed to many to suggest that the series is over. If so, it was a brilliant run.

The Mallory novels are classic mysteries. In each, there is a central crime, a main event that not only sets things in motion but remains the primary driving force throughout the narrative. In each, the 'real killer' is obvious after the fact but false leads and misdirection make the revelation a surprise. Typically, the real killer is less interesting than other characters either morally ambiguous or simply but less obviously evil.

Mallory herself is a protagonist so wonderfully dimensioned that we are driven, at least through the first four novels, by the desire to know and understand her. Beautiful as a Hollywood star, larger than lifesize (she's said to be 6'1" in an early book, but O'Connell shrank her a bit later). Bright and talented, she is psychologically damaged and scarred almost beyond imagining. An orphaned street kid who survived on the nourishment of ferocity, cunning, and forlorn hope, she is captured and adopted by Helen and Louis Markowitz, a homicide detective and his wife, central figures of all the novels in spite of the fact that both are dead before the books begin.

As with so many good mystery series, a great deal of the attraction is the intertwining lives of the cast of friends, colleagues, and enemies. The wonderful Charles Butler, not so much ugly as clownish, but brave, brilliant, and madly in love with Mallory. Rumpled Sergeant Riker, the aging alcoholic who tries to keep Kathy safe. You never know who will matter. We hear in each novel a bit more about Charles' uncle, a famous magician. Another magician, Malakhai, plays a central role offstage in The Man Who Cast Two Shadows and then later, in Shell Game, emerges as a foreground character and the prime suspect in a murder.

O'Connell writes with a vividness, style, and craft that sets these novels apart from pulp detective fiction, into the literary landscape of some of the best of our writers.

Here's a quick link to Carol O'Connell offerings at Amazon.


^ Mallory's Oracle
Paperback

The first Mallory book hinges on solving the murder of Mallory's father, Louis Markowitz: Mallory has a personal interest in the crime, as in other novels of the series. In this case that personal interest—catching the killer of Markowitz—overshadows the main plot,
Mallory's Oracle, by Carol O'Connell
a series of killings of elderly women. One of the impressive things about the Mallory books is the continuity of themes, often on a locally insignificant plane, suggesting that O'Connell thought of the books as a single, unified story. The first book foreshadows the Gothic themes of the fourth book, introducing into the sociopathic sanity of Mallory's world a strangely cosmopolitan and dangerous Santeria fortune teller who manages on two occasions to possess the soul of a dog.

The first incident of the first novel is as bizarre and inexplicable as any of the harrowing details of Stone Angel. A Doberman commits suicide; it is so frightened that it leaps through a closed window and falls to its death. By the end of the novel, we know who frightened it and why, but not how, and the detail haunts us long after the story is finished. And the Doberman's death, for all its prominence, has almost nothing to do with the main action, nor does the dog's death contribute significantly to solving the murders.

The first novel introduces all the characters and themes that will figure in the series. Riker, the aging alcoholic detective who partners and parents Mallory (to the degree she allows it) is a stock character, as is Lt. Coffey, the supervisor in charge of Markowitz' Special Crimes Unit and Mallory, vaguely in love with her. Charles Butler and, through him, the theme of magic, are central to the action here and throughout the series. And the novel ends as tantalizingly as any Erle Stanley Gardner puzzle. On a certain page, Charles and then, independently, Mallory, each figure out who the killer is, and we are invited, implicitly, to catch up.

And the killer, once identified, turns out to be infinitely less interesting than the real nemesis of the story, a character whose maleficence is slowly revealed to us as the story unwinds.

^ The Man Who Cast Two Shadows
Paperback

The personal issue here is that the first murder victim appears to be Mallory. When Mallory finds out who the dead woman is, then tracking down her killer becomes a vendetta. Mallory is best when on a vendetta.

Although this is the least engaging of the novels—to my taste, anyway—it is a good, solid read and a mystery of considerable complication. Mallory moves into a high profile New York condo to track down the killer of a young woman who had recently and illogically submitted to an abortion. Mallory has three suspects to shift through, each of them with his own guilty secret.
Three subplots weave through the story as well: a woman who is being terrorized by what appear to be psychokinetic events, a wife abuser who may have beaten his mother to death, and a blind man who may have murdered his wife. In classic O'Connell form, when the four threads begin to tie off, the result is not what we might have expected. And true to her style, O'Connell leaves us uncertain almost to the last page which crimes were committed by whom.

O'Connell has some quirks in her authorial stance as unnerving as Mallory's sociopathy. A continuing theme of the book is Mallory's adoption by the murdered woman's cat, Nose. The cat adores her, and we see Mallory occasionally from inside the cat's eyes. in that throwaway mode O'Connell uses to remind us to worry us about the detective's moral perspective, Mallory is described fairly often as prepared to shoot that cat if it doesn't leave her alone. At the end of the novel, the cat is indeed shot, and all we learn of its fate is Mallory's stock juvenile self-justification: "I didn't do it." Even in the next novel, no indication if the cat was killed, no acknowledgement of its existence. One is uncertain whether this is Mallory's callousness or O'Connell's. But Mallory has no empathy for animals. (Read Stone Angel.)

Perhaps the most interesting thing in the novel is the revelation, toward the end, that at the age of eight, Kathy was nearly killed in a snuff film. Like so much that distinguishes this wonderful series, the disclosure of this information, through Charles Butler's conversations with Dr. Slope and Sergeant Riker, both advances the action, helps us understand Mallory better, and begins to set the stage for the extraordinary plot of Stone Angel.

^ Killing Critics
Paperback

I discovered Mallory by picking up this book. I read it in a couple of evenings and went out immediately to buy the two earlier books. And then, in London, I managed to get Stone Angel months before it appeared in U.S. paperback. I will confidently predict that anyone who reads to page 50 will not put Killing Critics down. It begins with a death we don't care about very much, but when that murder is linked to another that occurred a decade earlier, the reader is engaged almost immediately.
Killing Critics, by Carol O'Connell
From strange beginning, with its art party murder of an artist even his mother won't miss, we are taken into classic Mallory country: the streets of New York filled with the homeless and the unimaginably rich. The gruesome main story alternates with a seemingly irrelevant but very funny hijacking of Bloomingdale's roof by a demented art critic.

The murder at the center of the plot is so heartless and savage that we flinch away as the details unfold. O'Connell withholds from us, nearly until the end of the book, the complete details of the crime; each new layer of facts doled out as the story moves forward increases the horror. A young dancer and an artist who may have been her lover have been butchered, quite literally, and their bodies used to assemble an obscene, humiliating sculpture. The man killed at the beginning of the novel may have committed the earlier crime, and the girl's uncle emerges as the likely revenger of her death. The girl's mother, herself a famous and admired artist, has gone mad and disappeared, and the trivial little man on the roof of Bloomingdale's knows far too much about the earlier murder.

Be warned – British Titles
O'Connell's writing career began with a British publisher, and her novels have a busy life in UK editions. However, many of the titles are different there. Amazon will occasionally list a UK title without explanation. It's not a new book! Here's a list of UK titles with US equivalents. The links to the UK titles are 'live,' in case you want to build an international O'Connell collection.

British TitleU.S. Title
Mallory's Oraclesame
The Man Who Lied to WomenThe Man with Two Shadows
Killing Criticssame
Flight of the Stone AngelStone Angel
Judas Childsame
Magic MenShell Game
Crime Schoolsame
Dead FamousThe Jury Must Die
Winter Housesame
Find MeShark Music

Mallory's prey, the people who committed the original slaughter and the killer apparently avenging that crime, may include a character we want very much to be innocent and another we come to loathe. The conclusion, and the solution to the puzzles, is surprising, touching, and vintage O'Connell.

The complex tapestry of the four first volumes of the Mallory books is extraordinarily rich. The butchery of the bodies of Aubry Gilette and the artist echoes the knifing of Markowitz in the first novel. The mother's crazy love for her dead daughter touches Mallory's orphan heart more than she is willing to admit. As she is working out the crime, Mallory pantomimes the action at the murder scene, trying to settle questions of timing that had bothered Markowitz a decade ago. When she reaches the point when the girl's uncle, J. L. Quinn, found the bodies, she is struck suddenly with a new emotion: empathy for his pain. Later, near the end of the book, she will learn how meagre his pain must have been, compared to that of another witness. And later still, in Shell Game, when the murderer of Louisa dies as brutally as Aubrey did, right before Mallory's eyes, she learns that no amount of empathy can prepare you for actually experiencing the savagery yourself.

I love them all, but this still may be my favorite. No, Judas Child. Or Stone Angel, I guess. No....

^ Stone Angel
Paperback

What appeared to be the Gothic finish to a four-book exploration of the character and history of the impossible and wonderful Kathleen Mallory. Here all the hints and misdirections of three novels come together. In Killing Critics, Mallory invented her childhood, as a way of luring witnesses into new revelations. Here, at last, we learn the truth, and it is as terrible as Mallory's inventions.

Mallory turns up in rural Louisiana, and before she even hits town, two men are dead and a boy has been attacked with a piano. The foreshadowings come together in a gruesome and horrifying death, her mother's, nearly twenty years ago, and the new crimes link neatly to the old, like fresh meat and vintage wine.

Riker and Charles are a part of the story, each of them having tracked Mallory across the country from New York, each of them giving her what help they can. And some new characters at center stage have potential for additional future novels: Augusta Trebec, old enough to be Kathy's grandmother and fierce enough to be blood relation. Lilith Beaudare, a young black cop who comes into her own by saving the lives of Mallory, Charles, and the sheriff, and wants to come to New York. Henry Roth, the mute sculptor who kept the memory of Kathy's mother alive in his series of stone angels. And we learn where Kathleen got her last name.

O'Connell pulls out all the stops for her operatic conclusion. At one point, Mallory is striding down a dark street, wearing a black duster, wide-brimmed hat, and riding boots, lit by streetlamps and obviously meant to recall Clint Eastwood in the finale of A Fistful of Dollars. Amazingly, it works; a scene that should have been silly has all the resonance of the original.

Standing alone, Stone Angel would not be quite the same; it depends on the other books like the last act of a play needs its predecessors. If it all had ended here, we'd have no right to complain, the finale is so apocalyptic and satisfying. The news that O'Connell's next novel would not feature Mallory should have come as no surprise. The surprise followed Judas Child: a fifth Mallory novel, Shell Game, then a sixth (Crime School), and even, soon, a seventh. The characters are as alive, and growing, and real, as any in series fictions, and each novel, so far, has rewarded the reader's patience and perseverance.

^ Judas Child
Paperback

I can't remember another book that I have started reading again as soon as I finished it, nor another that reduces me to tears as the end unfolds every time I read it (four times, the last a few days ago).
The epigraph of the book should be Ali Cray's grim admonition in the first few pages: "Don't fall in love with the child. She's dead." The twists and turns of the story debouch into a conclusion so startling that I returned immediately to the first page and read the entire book a second time to see if O'Connell had cheated (violated the logic of her story's world). She hadn't. And standing with the priest and Becca Green at Sadie's grave, on that final page, tears came to my eyes a second time. What an extraordinary book.

The Judas Child is kidnapped to lure the real target into the killer's hands — like a Judas goat leading the herd to slaughter. A serial killer has been murdering little girls for fifteen years, each Christmas. His first victim was the twin sister of one protagonist, the policeman Rouge Kendall. His last is the daughter of the lieutenant governor, and the Judas child he uses to snatch her is an amazing little girl named Sadie Green.

It would make no difference, I think, if I told you when she dies. You would know I was playing games with you, and you would be as astonished and overjoyed at her sudden resurrection as I was. Some of the most vivid scenes of the novel take place in a surreal cellar where Sadie and her friend Gwen are trapped. And the last moments of their confinement are at once a nightmare, a ballet, and a puzzle.

There is a certain cruelty about O'Connell's literary persona, a hardness that echoes Kathy Mallory's, and it is not evident here, nor is it replaced by the cloying sentimentality so typical of hard people. The ferocity of the priest, the madness of the psychiatrist, the toothy meanness of the killer, and the terrible relationship between Ali Cray and her ex-lover all play against the sentimental touches.

Will this cast of brilliant grotesques return? Hard to say. Rouge and Ali Cray deserve another book, but they've gone their separate ways. Rouge's career is beginning; Ali has put her monsters away. There is one plot that could pull them back together. We'll see.

Meantime, this is not a book to miss.

^ Shell Game [review]
Paperback

Nearing the last fifty pages of Shell Game, the fifth Mallory novel, I found myself thinking it was Ok, but a bit disappointing. Then the execution of the killer of Louisa began and we were there again, in that special place Carol O'Connell describes so well, the shadow country between our world and Mallory's.

It's not unusual to be disappointed in what appear to be 'second thought' sequels. The story of Kathleen Mallory concluded with Stone Angel. One can only go into the fifth novel with some apprehension: Is there really anything more we need to know about Mallory, her friends, the continuing characters?

Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Although Charles Butler is less in the foreground than he was in Stone Angel, he grows in this book, as dramatically as he did in the last. His final scene is appropriate and totally unexpected. We also see more complexities of Coffey, Slope, Riker, and learn more about Kathy's childhood and Helen Markowitz. O'Connell always treats her favorite characters with respect and intelligence. We will probably never learn anything about Riker as affecting as our glimpse into his personal life in Killing Critics, but he continues to develop in Shell Game. He begins here to take a strong, active role in bringing Mallory back to the human race, the central theme of this fifth book.

The story of Malakhai and the dead Louisa has been hovering in the background like a smudge on the horizon — cloud? distant smoke? — since they were first mentioned in The Man Who Cast Two Shadows, where magic also takes center stage. Shell Game, despite its strangely trivial beginnings, becomes, once Malakhai arrives on the scene, an interesting exploration of the depths of Mallory's alienation. And the end is as harrowing a descent to Hell as anyone ever deserved. What a terrible way to discover you have a soul, standing helpless on a stage. And Kathy grows. I was reminded of my son, at six, waking up screaming when his bones grew too fast in the night.

The plot here, tangling the death of a magician during a botched escape trick in Central Park, two strangely comic humiliations of Mallory, and a maze of deception and misdirection dating back to the death of Malakhai's wife Louisa in WWII France, sometimes brings us to a thudding halt like the mazes it resembles. But the handful of magicians implicated in Louisa's death are sufficiently differentiated that things pick up again quickly, and the twists and reversals at the end puzzle and fascinate.

No, not the best Mallory novel. Killing Critics still holds pride of place with me. But a good one, with something for the O'Connell fan and a good mystery, twisted and bent as O'Connell always does so well, for the neophyte just discovering the Mallory books. Better than the Thomas Harris junk that hits the bestseller lists like wet garbage? Of course. How sad, the critics drooling over celebrities like Harris and James Ellroy, when real writers often can't even get reviewed.

^ Crime School [review]
Hardcover

Shell Game was essentially, until the last harrowing moments, an intellectual puzzle.
Crime School, by Carol O'Connell
Crime School returns to the original combination that characterized the first Mallory books, mingling Kathleen Mallory's fascinating life story with a series of crimes at once gruesome, baffling, and compelling.

The first sixteen pages relentlessly portray Mallory's lack of sympathy or concern for a prostitute who has been brutally injured and left for dead. The woman, named Sparrow, is comatose by the time she reaches the hospital, her condition hopeless and her death inevitable. Mallory's attitude is uncharacteristic and unnerving, even harder and more cruel than we have come to expect.

We learn quickly, through the observations of Mallory's partner Riker, that the injured woman was someone who helped Kathy when the cop was still a homeless street kid. It develops that Sparrow adopted the child, probably saved her life, and was nearly killed protecting her, all more than a decade ago. Riker's affection for Sparrow borders on love, and he jeopardizes his own career early in the novel to conceal an important secret which could connect her to Mallory. Why? That may be the real mystery of this complex crime novel, and the answer is complicated but convincing.

Mallory recalls tenuous but nagging links to a similar crime that occurred twenty years ago and baffled her stepfather/mentor, Detective Louis Markowitz. And then another body is found, a woman killed a week before the attack on Sparrow and also dead because ponderous bureaucracy conspired with an incompetent killer. Threads of evidence for both the original crime and the copycat serial killings lead to civil servants, including a highly-placed police officer, and a conspiracy of bureaucratic silence stands in the way of solving the decade-old original crime.

O'Connell's New York City is alternately a surreal nightmare and a dark comedy. When the killer finally attacks his third victim, a crowd of New Yorkers assume the crime is a department store window display. O'Connell's descriptions of the city and its fauna (as she calls them at one point) are as cynical and dispassionate as Mallory's might be, her rhetorical trademark an almost Olympian perspective on the jungle she is describing.

Through the surreal detail and horrific crime data, what shines from these novels is the love surrounding Mallory, a gift she is learning, finally, to value. When she physically confronts the killer, near the end of the book, she is facing a psychological mirror, and she sees what we all hope she will see. As the novel winds to its last moments, we are asked to dread what's coming, and what's coming is, instead, beautiful and touching. I've called this essay "Watching Mallory Grow a Soul," and Crime School continues this theme.

Crime School will not disappoint fans of the first novels, where Shell Game might.

^ Dead Famous [review]
Hardcover

Dead Famous has been a hard book to review. Elements of the Mallory schtick are beginning to wear thin for me. And yet I've read this particular book more than once. Why?
Dead Famous, by Carol O'Connell

My full review tries to explain. Here I'll just sketch the answer. O'Connell's New York and her characters have become grotesque cartoons. This is not a new element. It is present in Killing Critics, a personal favorite that I recommend to anyone who wants to get some idea what all the fuss about O'Connell and Mallory springs from. Her utterly bogus art world and the subplot of "fashion terrorism" are pure satire in the Hogarth sense–over the top, on the mark.

O'Connell takes big chances in the Mallory books. Mallory is not likeable, and she is often not lovable either, for all the gangs of good people who love and have loved her. Here, one is much more taken with the new character, Johanna Apollo, just as one wishes, in many of the other books, that Charles would "get over" Mallory, oblivious to his love, and accept the love he is oblivious to. Apollo is a psychiatrist connected to a series of related murders, a mystery woman who has gone undercover, using a day job as a cleaner of domestic crime scenes as a way to find and help the survivors of violent crime. Riker falls utterly in love with her, and so, before long, do we.

The working out of Johanna's secrets, the resolution of the trauma that has made Riker incapable of continuing as a police officer, the discovery of the killer, all move through a world in which the psychotic and sociopathic are commonplace. There is even a psychotic cat who mauls characters at will, taken for granted. Where is O'Connell going with all this? The answer is not in this book.

^ Winter House [review]
Hardcover

Winter House represents a handful of important developments in the story of Kathy Mallory and the men who love her. Here, finally, there are no more excuses, no more accommodations to her pathology, and she is confronted, at last, with conflicts that will force her to grow or succumb to the worst in her ambiguous character.
Winter House, by Carol O'Connell
There is little here of the macabre humor that characterizes the more recent books. O'Connell's New York remains a jungle of neurotics and psychopaths, but Kathy is invited to rise above this, and she is given, in the person of Nedda Winter, prime suspect in a handful of psychopathic killings, a mirror for her own damaged soul.

A serial killer has been stabbed to death inside a potential victim's home. The investigation of the crime reveals some puzzling details. For example, his presence in the house is a violation of his own criminal MO. Secondly, he was killed with an ice pick, and then a scissors was inserted in the wound to hide this fact. Why? The biggest puzzle of all, however, is the identity of the killer whose self defense set the story in motion. Nedda Winter is the mysterious "Red Winter," who disappeared as a twelve-year-old child, 58 years ago, after her entire family, with three exceptions, was systematically murdered. With an ice pick.

Where has she been? Asylums and nursing homes, from which she has only been extracted a few months ago. What happened in those intervening decades? It takes the entire book to answer that, and the answer is convincing but utterly amazing. What happened the night she disappeared? Is she the murderer of her family, a crime perhaps committed by a child in response to probably incestuous abuse by her father? Is she an innocent victim or a dangerous madwoman?

Most important, she is a type of Kathy, a representation of where a woman damaged as Kathy has been damaged may, eventually, end up. This recognition, seen by Charles, Riker, Nedda herself and, finally, Kathy, is the most compelling theme of this novel, which combines a tightly plotted mystery with all the power and energy that drove the revelatory Stone Angel almost a decade ago. From here, there are logical places to go, and the promise of a ninth book is one to enjoy while we wait the obligatory year for the next in the series.

^ Find Me [review]
Hardcover

The latest Mallory novel is generating some controversy. Does the plot signal an end to the series? Is the story too disjointed, too confusing? Myself, I enjoyed the book, though my patience wore thin sometimes as the cross-country exploration of Route 66 began to feel repetitious, and it was a bit disappointing to recognize characters from other novels (notably Judas Child) dragooned into reprising their schtick.
Find Me, by Carol O'Connell
In some ways, Find Me is a mirror/opposite of Stone Angel, Mallory's other venture from New York into her own history. Where Stone Angel is so rich and entertaining that we don't much care how it ends, Find Me provides an ending so brilliant that it excuses any tedium getting there.

The novel begins with Mallory vanished from New York, her houseguest dead in her apartment. Did she kill the woman? As Riker observes to himself, "If so, what did the woman do to deserve it?" Mallory is tracing Route 66, her tour guide a handful of letters. The "mystery" of why Kathy is on the road isn't all that mysterious, and Riker's ironic speculation has not a grain but a bushel of substance. The reader knows after a few pages that Kathy is looking for her father – in some sense. What we don't know is whether her father is a serial killer also obsessed with Route 66. Will Kathy find her father and then arrest him? Kill him?

O'Connell has always done an excellent job of making others – not just Kathy and her crew, but the most minor characters – more interesting than the killer. Here she pushes that element to a daring extreme, and the result may account for some readers' confusion and disappointment. We are denied something we take for granted in mystery fiction. No way to explain that without spoilers no reader would forgive; suffice it to say that the encounter between Kathy and the killer is one of the most memorable of any endings I've ever read.

O'Connell, like James Lee Burke and a handful of other serious writers in the mystery genre, has always had her sights on something more ambitious than an airport whodunit, and every book carefully balances Mallory's story with the suspense of tracking the killer. In every novel, the killer is revealed to be a person of no consequence beyond their impact, like a shark's, on their victims. They are creatures of eccentric banality, to twist Hannah Arendt's famous words. Here is no exception.

Mallory's world is a cartoon universe, where everyone is a bit simpler and stranger than we are used to in the real world. It is a style, like the cartoons of William Hogarth or Francisco Goya, meant to capture essentials quickly and precisely. It works, but for some readers Kathy – and reality – are too important to be "reduced" to cartoons. Get out of that mindset, and you will enjoy your trip on Route 66.


Top Dancing Badger Home Buy Books Book Reviews [mainly]
Go to Powell's Books
Search for out-of-print Carol O'Connell titles at Powells.

Google