The Chalk Girl

The Chalk Girl is Carol O’Connell’s latest Mallory mystery. Mallory is back on the job at NYPD, with no explanation for her three-month absence (except we know, because we read Find Me). If any further proof were needed that the Mallory books are not “gritty realism,” that they occupy some surreal universe that is not our own, it would be this – that an NYPD detective can disappear from the job for three months, return without a word, and be instantly reinstated.

Well, perhaps not instantly. There is a little matter of the unfavorable psych evaluation that is keeping her on desk duty. Mallory gives that directive exactly the attention it deserves, and is planning a special revenge for the shrink who penned the eval.

Kathy Mallory is a fabulous monster. I know with every book in the series that Mallory could not exist in a real police department anywhere, but I don’t care. In The Chalk Girl, Mallory and her partner Riker take on old money and top brass, including the acting Chief of Police and the Chief of Detectives. At risk are two children. One is Coco, a red-ringleted waif who is found wandering in Central Park, who looks like a fairy figurine, and who knows all there is to know about rats. The other is Ernest, who speaks to us from his journal in every chapter heading; Ernest, who is terrified and brave.

The book opens with one of O’Connell’s standard macabre, hilarious scenes, a tsunami of rats. These aren’t regular rats, either. They are stoned rats, stoned on the gas an incompetent pest control guy tried to kill them with. Rats on meth, basically, overrun Central Park. As the rats begin to clear out, people find Coco, with her red curls and the blood spattered on the shoulders of her sweater. Coco says she came to the park with her Uncle Red, who turned into a tree, and the tree is bleeding.

Charles Butler, Mallory’s wealthy, brilliant psychologist friend, diagnoses Coco as having Williams Syndrome. At eight years old, she has trouble buttoning her blouse and cannot tie shoelaces, but she can play piano sonatas and identify any brand of vacuum cleaner just by listening to the motor. In a series noted for a certain kind of excess, I think O’Connell went over the top with the Williams Syndrome, glamorizing the condition for purposes of the plot, and making Coco a magical child instead of a real one. Of course, Mallory is the ultimate magical being, so I suppose Coco is just in keeping with the theme.

The fate of Coco’s uncle –who isn’t an uncle at all – is wrapped up with the death of another child fifteen years earlier. The case is rife with madness and lies, extortion and bribery, and at its heart are three vicious, privileged children and the one who tried to bring them to justice.

I also read the Harry Bosch books, by Michael Connelly. Bosch often uncovers the truth and confronts the powerful people at the top. He never quite manages to take them down. Often one of the upper echelon dwellers is sacrificed or scape-goated, but Bosch often walks away feeling like a dupe or a tool of those in power. The message is, “You can’t bring down the system.” Mallory is the anti-Bosch. I imagine career cops reading these books at home, snickering secretly as Mallory does the things they wish they could do. That we all wish we could do.

One of Mallory’s nicknames in the squad is Mallory the Machine. She is perfectly beautiful, perfectly dressed, perfectly manicured and perfectly cool. Mallory doesn’t think she is about justice, or even vengeance. Mallory thinks she is about winning. Mallory’s function, in fiction, is bigger than that, though. It’s that of a goddess. She’s Nemesis.

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