Book review: The Chalk Girl by Carol O’Connell

The Chalk Girl
by Carol O’Connell
Headline, January 2012

Kathy Mallory is back after a six-year gap. There are nine earlier novels about this tall, blonde, attractive NYPD detective, of which I’ve read two or three. I don’t think it is necessary to have read any of them to enjoy The Chalk Girl, as there is plenty of recap in it.

The basic plot of The Chalk Girl concerns some gruesome murders in the Ramble, a wooded area of Central Park. A little girl, Coco, is discovered by a school party. Coco is bloodstained and appears to have been wandering around for several days and nights. She has witnessed, it seems, a crime in which a man has been put in a sack and strung up in a tree. Later, two other victims are found under similar circumstances. Mallory and her partner Riker are assigned not only to solve the case, but also to dig the dirt on “Rocket” Mann, currently acting commissioner of police, and hoping to make his role permanent.

Mallory wants to interrogate the little girl, Coco, but is prevented from doing so by her friend Charles Butler, a rich psychiatrist who has taken Coco under his wing and diagnosed her with Williams’ syndrome. Quite a large part of the plot is about this triangle, with the older man being very fond of Mallory but wary of her presumed ruthless nature, and Coco regarding Mallory as an angel from heaven for rescuing her.

By hacking into databases and threatening the Medical Examiner and various lawyers and pathologists, Mallory discovers that the deaths are copy-cat murders of a crime 15 years ago. The reader is already aware of some of this information, via diary entries that start each chapter. Somehow, an exclusive school is involved, in which one boy was severely abused and bullied by his classmates, and another accused and convicted of a crime that he may or may not have committed. In some way, “Rocket” Mann was involved in the earlier investigation when a rookie detective; it was after this case that his meteoric rise to fame began. Mallory gradually puts all the pieces together, during which we meet some truly horrible rich socialites and donors to charitable causes.

The detective plot is satisfying in its logic, but less so in its dependence on Mallory’s ability to find out information by means unknown to the reader. Mallory herself is a problem character. As with the previous couple of books about her that I’ve read, we are repeatedly reminded that she was a feral child, was bought up by a deceased cop and his wife, is strangely wealthy (her clothes are described often even though they are always the same!), is “crazy”, etc. Her personality is also told to us, rather than us being allowed to see it for ourselves and decide. This effect is exacerbated by the fact that Mallory is always seen through the eyes of the other characters, particularly her partner Riker, rather than directly.

I did enjoy this book, despite its many digressions and repeated myth-making about Mallory. The identity of the perpetrator of the modern crime is not hard to guess once we have sufficient information about the dynamics between the school students and staff, but as it plays out, the outcome is poignant. The internal-affairs-style subplot is less satisfactory in that Mann’s part in it is somewhat perfunctory and the police corruption angle peters out, though one or two loose ends about Mallory’s career in the police department are resolved.

I thank Karen of Euro Crime for my copy of this book.

Other reviews of The Chalk Girl: Literary Lunchbox, Kirkus Reviews and Publishers’ Weekly (brief).