Title: The Chalk Girl
Hardback: 448 pages
Publication Date: 17/01/2012
Carol O’Connell has never been what you would call a prolific author. It is two and a half years since her last novel – the brilliant, spellbinding Bone By Bone – was published. And it has been almost four years since her last Kathy Mallory book [2008’s Shark Music].
So, for me – a self-confessed O’Connell addict – the release of a new novel featuring the inimitable Kathy Mallory is something to be savoured. A beautiful sociopathic NYPD detective, Kathy [never, ever Kathleen!] is – as the shoutline on The Chalk Girl’s cover makes clear – a prototype and forerunner for Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. Like Salander, Kathy is a constant outsider – unable to relate to those around her or feel empathy.
I have always been addicted to – and fascinated by – damaged characters in fiction. From Estella in Great Expectations [Dickens’s version rather than the recent BBC butchering of the character by making her nice!], to Salander [who was, for me, the only thing that made Larsson’s series more than just your average Scandi-crime books], to Dorothy Dunnett’s Francis Crawford of Lymond [in the incredible Lymond Chronicles series], and on to Karin Slaughter’s Will Trent [whose destructive ‘relationship’ with his wife, Angie Polaski, continues to fascinate], all are characters that I think that readers are drawn to because they want to understand and ‘fix’ them.
But Mallory stands supreme and triumphant over all of them – a fascinating mass of contradictions that I still haven’t worked out, even after ten novels! Tall, beautiful, with angelically curly blonde hair, catlike green eyes and a penchant for made-to-measure, designer cashmere blazers, Mallory seems more like a model than a detective. And yet she undercuts this image of femininity [and it is very much a constructed ‘image’] by her choice of firearm – a .357 Smith & Wesson [think of the hand cannon that Clint Eastwood waved around in Dirty Harry and you are on the right tracks!].
Like Salander, Mallory is also an incredibly good hacker and is more than willing to bend – and often break – the rules, in order to get what she wants. Indeed, rather than use the authority of her NYPD badge, she is more likely to flash her .357 to elicit fear and get things accomplished in a far speedier fashion.
The Chalk Girl sees Mallory – after Shark Music’s Route 66 setting – returning to her natural environment, New York. When a smiling, red-haired, bloodstained little girl named Coco is discovered in Central Park, she leads the police to discover a body in a tree. And in Coco Mallory recognizes a kindred spirit, one who leads her to uncover a years-old story of murder, violence, blackmail and cruelty. Cruelty that only someone with Mallory’s dark, dark past would understand…
As a novel, The Chalk Girl bears all of the hallmarks that have become associated with an O’Connell novel – there’s the raft of eccentric characters, the slightly surreal occurrences and the tight, dense, almost ‘floaty’ prose-style. I also loved the manner in which O’Connell uses Coco brings out a new, almost alien, side of Mallory – one where she almost seems to engage and care for someone. In many ways Coco can be read as a mini-Mallory [one at that point of her life when she needs a Markowitz-type to take her in – Louis Marcowitz having been the detective who, with his wife, adopted the wild young Mallory].
The one thing that did strike me is that the main characters – Mallory, Riker and Charles Butler – all seem to be slightly more accessible than they were in the early novels. This is especially true in the case of Mallory, who is far less disassociated and sociopathic in The Chalk Girl than at any other point in the series [which, you would imagine, will make her far more palatable for an audience that has been made more receptive to fictional sociopathic protagonists by the success of Stieg Larsson’s books and Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter series].