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Author: Carol O’Connell

Title: Bone By Bone

Publisher: Headline

Trade Paperback: 403

ISBN: 978-0-7553-5297-5

Price: £12.99

Publication Date: 30/12/2008


Ever since I first discovered her Kathy Mallory series whilst rooting through my parent’s bookcases as a teenager, I’ve been an avid reader of Carol O’Connell’s novels. But even amongst her oeuvre the 2008 stand-alone Bone By Bone is a personal favourite. Every time I stumble across it whilst navigating my heaving bookshelves I can’t stop myself … I just have to re-read it [four times and counting this year – rather obsessive, I know!]. So, finally, here’s a review/paean that will try to tease out what makes this novel so special for me.

Ex-Army CID investigator Oren Hobb’s return to his hometown of Coventry, California after a two-decade absence isn’t much of a happy homecoming. For it coincides with the gruesome return of his younger brother Josh – bone by bone. Josh’s disappearance some twenty years before remains an unsolved mystery, but one that the haunted Oren is determined to solve – and avenge. Hindered by the incompetence of the Sheriff’s department and plagued by the reporters who have descended on Coventry, Oren must dig into secrets from the past and confront his own demons if he wants to uncover his brother’s murderer – and with everybody seemingly hiding something, there’s no shortage of suspects.

However, this being an O’Connell novel, the crime and its investigation is actually a fairly subsidiary element, which plays second fiddle to the amazing cast of characters.  Indeed, I would say that O’Connell’s forte is her ability to produce amazing communities and their inhabitants, who are almost always fascinatingly different and often broken in some way, but with whom the reader is still able to empathise [even when they are a sociopath like Mallory!]. Handsome, cowboy boot wearing Oren, who in his youth was the darling of the womenfolk of Coventry, doesn’t have as many quirky qualities as the rest of the townsfolk, but I instantly warmed to his laconic manner.

Him aside though, the small town of Coventry probably has more eccentrics per capita than the rest of California combined. It’s probably safe to say that realism isn’t something that O’Connell will ever be accused of [at least I don’t think that I’ve ever met anyone like a single one of the characters in this novel, let alone a whole town of them!], but Coventry’s seething milieu of festering grudges and decades-old attraction and lust is just too damn enthralling for questions of believability to get in the way.

And the love/hate relationship that exists between Oren and beautiful ornithologist Isabelle Winston – who physically attacks him every time they encounter one another as payback for some unknown slight in the past – is a complete joy to behold and the very antithesis of the saccharine Hollywood-esque romance that abounds in contemporary literature. Captivated by one another and in love since childhood, Oren and Isabelle’s violent exchanges become a strange mating dance and substitute for language [they have never actually spoken to one another]. Their unfulfilled love is just one of the many mesmerizing strands that O’Connell weaves into Bone By Bone, but which gives the novel real individuality and emotional charge.

Enthralling and filled with lovely prose and rich, deeply complicated characters, Bone By Bone is so filled with séances, recluses and secrets it’s a surprise that anything gets done in Coventry. And, as with her 1997 Kathy Mallory novel, Flight of the Stone Angel [in which Mallory returns to the small town in which she grew up in order to find her mother’s murderer – there are undoubtedly parallels with Oren and his search for the truth], O’Connell adeptly recreates the claustrophobic nature of small town life, where everyone knows each other’s business … or thinks they do.

This is a masterful example of how to build a mystery novel, with O’Connell slowly drip-feeding the reader information and pieces of the characters’ histories whilst never allowing the suspense to drop. If there is one thing in this book that I didn’t think completely worked, then it would be that the denouement in which the killer is revealed does feel slightly rushed and out-of-keeping with the pace of the rest of the novel. But this was only a minor gripe set against all of the brilliant aspects of this book.
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