Friday, April 24, 2015

What we're reading: New (old) series

I discover so many series by seeing the latest book on the New Books shelves and then going to the regular shelves to start reading from the beginning. The latest one I discovered is the Kathleen Mallory mystery series by Carol O'Connell.

The series opens in Mallory's Oracle with a murder, and one particularly significant to the protagonist. Kathleen Mallory was adopted off the streets at (about) age 10 by a police detective, Louis Markowitz, and his wife, Helen, and although they (particularly Helen) exerted some civilizing influence over her, there is a large percentage of wild child left inside the now grown-up sergeant in the Special Crimes division of the New York City police department. Reining in this devastatingly intelligent and attractive but borderline sociopathic personality is about to become a matter for concern, to her commanding officer and to her adoptive father's friends, because one of the dead bodies discovered in a seedy tenement room belongs to Louis Markowitz. Although Mallory (her preferred form of address) is better with computers than with people, discovering her father's killer (and solving the murder of the wealthy Gramercy Park woman whose body was found next to him) takes her out of her comfort zone and into everyone else's business.

This was a first novel for O'Connell, and although there were flaws, I immediately invested in the main character, Mallory. She reminded me of Lacey Flint, the London-based detective constable in the series by S. J. Bolton previously reviewed here: another damaged, somewhat amoral police detective who does everything according to her own instincts regardless of policy and logic, and gets under people's skins despite herself. I had no idea what was going on for large bits of this book, and I found that simultaneously annoying and intriguing. And the resolution, with more than one person involved from different directions and for different motives, was the best part! It made me decide to go on to the next...

...which opens with Mallory herself featured as the murder victim! Fortunately for the reader (and the series), it's a case of mistaken identity--Mallory discarded one of her trademark jackets with her name label sewn in, and the jacket turned up on a homicide victim. This fact makes the case personal for Mallory, who decides to solve it even though she's been told not to. The Man Who Cast Two Shadows showcases the skills of this writer, by revealing Mallory on a slant through the eyes of various of her father's friends, who were either told off by Markowitz or have taken it upon themselves to look after her. In the process, we also get to know them--Charles Butler, the gentle, cultured giant who is more than a little in love with Mallory; Markowitz's old partner, the drunk and sloppy but astute Riker; and the rest of the guys at the poker table, including the medical examiner and the family rabbi.

The story is intricate and convoluted, again full of red herrings, but also with character insights and psychology galore, and exciting right down to the last page. O'Connell upped her game exponentially from the first book, and after this one I was so happy there were a bunch more to read! But...

...then came Book 3, Killing Critics. Maybe it's because I read it in a disjointed manner, stopping halfway through to reread a book for one of the teen book clubs--certainly most people on Goodreads rated it highly--but this one frustrated me without sufficient payoff, almost to the point that I thought the author had jumped the shark! I knew from the first two books that she is a writer who writes around, rather than about, the central mystery, until you get sufficient details and clues from all these separate events and scenarios to start putting it all together, and then she wows you at the end with the big reveal; and I like that to a point. But this one took too long for me, and was too oblique. Also, the gruesome nature of the crime makes Dexter look like an amateur. Finally, I started to become bored with the constant paean to Mallory as a borderline sociopath who is redeemed by being stunning to look at, incredibly smart and talented, yadda yadda yadda. Maybe the author got tired of that too, because at the end of this one, Mallory is headed out to a different arena not populated by all the overprotective friends of her late father Markowitz. So I went for one more, to see if O'Connell could restore my faith in her and in this series, and...

...she did! Stone Angel was a fascinating read, and a departure from the formula of the first three books. First of all, it takes place outside of New York City. Mallory has returned to her roots in rural Louisiana, to dig up the past and solve her real mother's murder. Charles Butler has followed her down south to a town seething with horrifying secrets, not the least of which is the fate of Cass Shelley (Mallory's mother). The book is perfectly cast and paced, from the unexpectedly humane sheriff to the mute sculptor of funeral markers to the clannish revivalist preacher. O'Connell does her usual number of throwing characters and scenarios at you from every side, letting them build from initial confusion towards the clarifying resolution of the grand finale, but in this one it worked beautifully. I still had a few instances of "C'mon!" but in general I was riveted. And the reader of the series finally reaches the long awaited payoff of the complete back story of Mallory. I'm glad I decided to move past the frustration with O'Connell's third book to try another. I will keep going!

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