The Fiction of Carol O’Connell
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, Crime School, Dead Famous, Winter House, and Find Me. 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.