Saturday I stopped at Copperfield’s Used Books in Sebastopol on my way home from running errands. I was searching for a specific mystery to give a friend for All Hallows’ Read. I didn’t find that book, but stumbled across hidden treasure—a Carol O’Connell Mallory mystery I hadn’t read and hadn’t even known about.
Dead Famous was published in 2003, but from O’Connell’s acknowledgements, it was undoubtedly written during mid-to-late 2001, when devastating events changed life for the people of New York City. O’Connell thanks those who “came from far away to help.” She also says that there will be not one word about the attack on the World Trade Towers in the book, and there is not. She says, finally, that the people of New York are unbreakable.
Mallory police thrillers are about a half-step away from being urban fantasy in a lot of ways. Mallory is a cop, a detective. It’s hard to imagine how she worked her way up from uniform to a gold shield. It’s harder to imagine that anyone would hire her as a detective directly, even though her father was a respected (beloved) detective and she had rabbis all over the place in her home precinct. Assuming that through a wild series of flukes and favors, this gorgeous young sociopath could make it to detective, it’s highly unlikely she would have lasted this long in the highly politicized, liability-averse police department of New York City. Mallory has a neon sign saying “Come Sue Us” floating over her head.
Mallory’s hard-drinking slob of a partner, her father’s best friend, is equally unlikely really. It’s pretty clear that he was partnered with Mallory because he is the only one who can—well, not control, because nobody controls Mallory—but mitigate her affect somewhat. Riker is a real detective, with a sharp mind, decades of knowledge about human nature, and a strange compassion. He fears Mallory, and loves her. That’s the pair of feelings everyone who knows her has about her.
Kathy Mallory’s mother, a doctor, was murdered when Mallory was small. Mallory ended up of the streets of New York (I can’t remember exactly how) and lived on the streets for several years. Her last name is not Mallory. She chose that name when she was six. It is a corruption of the name of the man who murdered her mother. She kept it so she would remember who he was when she went back for him (and she did go back for him, in Stone Angel). A child on the streets of New York, Mallory made friends with the street hookers, who would read her stories between tricks, and she learned how to whistle the exact notes of a telephone digital dialer, and would call all over the country from pay phones, trying the seven-digit number her mother gave her with every single area code, trying to find the one relative who might help her. Instead, she ended up with Lieutenant Markowitz, his wife Helen and his poker club. She graduated from street thief to full-blown beautiful sociopath; a consummate computer hacker, B&E artist complete with her own sets of lockpicks, total scammer when she needs to be, and an intimidator of the first water. And she solves cases.
Dead Famous follows a serial killer who is targeting the members of a jury who acquitted a man in a controversial case, against public opinion. A radio shock-jock is now playing a “game,” encouraging listeners to call in with clues as to where the surviving jurors are hiding. Once they’re found, the murderer inevitably kills them. At the same time, Riker is recovering from a near fatal shooting, on disability, and running his brother’s crime-scene clean-up business. He is close to falling in love with Jo, a deformed but lovely and very smart woman who works for him. There is more to Jo than what’s on the surface. Riker knows that and wants to honor her privacy, but Mallory does not. The murders get closer to home when Riker discovers that Jo was the foreperson of the targeted jury.
Riker is suffering panic attacks after a demented teenaged boy stalked and shot him four times. Everyone he trusts has told him the attacker is dead, but Riker can’t quite believe it. He is being followed, and at least one of those followers is the correct build and height of his shooter.
Practically every Mallory book has a damaged character who is nearly as smart and clever as Mallory. In this book, that is Jo.Practically every book has a strutting, arrogant character, usually male, who makes me grind my teeth and pray for comeuppance. In this book, that’s a guy named Ian Zachary.
O’Connell has the gift of being able to create ideas, schemes and concepts that would never work, requiring too many coincidences in timing and so on, but that are absolutely convincing extensions of what we know about human nature. O’Connell’s prose, with its poetry and its acid-etched wit, do the rest. The Mallory books require a willing suspension of disbelief. I surrender my disbelief as soon as my fingers touch the book, because I know how good—and strange–the story inside is going to be.
The delineation of Mallory’s character, and the reactions of those around her, especially Riker and her one other friend, Charles, who in a different way is as much a freak as Mallory, make these books exciting, intriguing reads no matter how outlandish the main story is. In this book, Jo, a psychiatrist by training, thinks to herself that she does a disservice to Mallory by labeling her a sociopath. Mallory is in her own category—there is no one quite like her.