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).

21 thoughts on “Book review: The Chalk Girl by Carol O’Connell

  1. Sounds quite good if not brilliant. I have vague recollections of reading a couple of earlier books in this series but it must have been pre-record keeping days as I can’t remember them too well.

    • Yes, me too – I think it is because of that six-year gap since the last one. I think I remember reading that she could not get any more in the series published, so had to turn to other (non series) novels – but now has had the series picked up again?

  2. This sounds quite good. I like the idea of a crime book set in New York featuring a female detective. A lot of NY fiction is quite masculin I find. I will add it to my list.

  3. I know a couple of other crime writers that have been dropped by their publisher. It must be encouraging for them to see it is possible to be ‘picked up’ again.

    • It is a pity when a good writer gets dropped, Clare, when you see the dross that is published (James Patterson et al) and how quickly it shifts to the “remaindered” pile. Patricia Cornwell’s latest was published only a few months ago and Amazon can barely give it away at the moment đŸ˜‰ the price is so low on there.

  4. Thanks, Maxine. Excellent review as always.

    I remember reading the first of the Mallory novels a few years ago, just after I’d read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. At the time I was struck by the similarities between Mallory and Salander (you could almost view the first as a prototype for the second): emotionally damaged, gifted computer-hacker, courageous… And check out the similarity in the titles of the first novels in the respective series: O’Connell published The Man who Lied to Women in 1995, and Larsson published Men who Hate Women (original title of TGWTDT) in 2005 *cue music from the Twilight Zone*.

    I wonder if Larsson was inspired by O’Connell?!

    • Well the cover of this book certainly implies so, Mrs Pea! (“Before Lisbeth Salander there was Kathy Mallory”). Although there are some superficial resemblances I’d say they are rather different – one can’t imagine Lisbeth being part of a law-enforcement apparatus however rebellious a part of it. The character of Mallory is so obscure it is hard to tell – Lisbeth is a character the reader can instantly relate to, but Mallory is the victim of her author’s admiration for her, I think, and comes over as flat/insubstantial, despite her potential interest in her unusual background. The author makes the mistake of repeating endlessly the same small snippets of info (not just in this book) rather than gradually developing our (the reader’s) knowledge of Mallory, in my view. I would not be surprised if it is Larsson’s success that has caused a publisher to pick up the Mallory series again, though.

        • It’s a bit obscure/grey! I did actually have a para about those words and my disagreement with them in the draft of the review but I decided to take them out as it isn’t as if the author has anything to do with the publicity info.

  5. Maxine – An excellent review as ever! It has indeed been a while since the last Mallory book. I’m glad you brought that up about O’Connell’s description of Mallory; I haven’t read this particular one but in the novels I have read, I always feel that I’m being told what she’s like rather than shown…

  6. I enjoyed her earlier novel but still have the last one awaiting a read! If only I had more time as you’ve reminded me of this author, Maxine.
    Wishing you and your family all the very best in 2012.

  7. Pingback: The Chalk Girl by Carol O’Connell | Petrona Book Reviews archive

  8. As I remember it, the previous Mallory novel, Shark Music, had Mallory leaving New York on a quest (don’t want this to be a spoiler so won’t elaborate) at the end of which it looked as if this was also the last of Mallory. Presumably O’Connell has taken up her option to give us more of this character. And – wasn’t Mallory’s Oracle the first, followed by The Man who Lied to Women?

    • I have only read a few of these, Anne, so don’t know which is the first. I am pretty sure I read Mallory’s Oracle, but I had given up on them before Shark Music.

  9. For a really weird one, there’s the earlier Mallory set in the deep South – real Southern Gothic! – The Flight of the Stone Angel aka The Stone Angel. She deals with events of her childhood pre- New York and their repercussions in the present day of the novel. I find these books fascinating and always look forward to the next.

    • So some of the books do provide Mallory’s back story in more detail – interesting, as the ones I’ve read provide minimal information – the same scraps, several times over per book. I wonder why the author does not integrate what she’s revealed of the back story into each subsequent book instead of repeating the old info each time.

  10. I disagree fundamentally with the revue, in that I find this book to be a masterpiece of the genre, and Ms O’Connell’s finest work to date, ranking alongside Stone angel and the stand alone Bone by Bone. In fact, these books no longer should be classed as ” crime fiction”, with the inevitable denigratory stigma that brings-for they are in fact studies about the nature of loneliness, human defensiveness, the dehumanising cruelty that man is capable of inflicting on his fellow man-and redemption and forgiveness (for some). The books are often very funny, and also reflect on the isolation of city dwelling (in Mallory novels-Bone by Bone is the opposite).
    These books are so well crafted-we have not even touched on the often heart rending poetry of her prose, a seeming contradiction in terms, but one which will be understood by her admirers.
    It is no coincidence that the first Mallory book was published here in the UK, before the USA-I think that Ms O’Connell’s literary spiritual home is here with us.

  11. The Chalk Girl was actually on one of my To Be Read piles until yesterday. I could hardly put it down, and won’t easily forget it. It may well be Carol O’Connell’s best book, and a heartbreaker at that. I could feel the author’s anger at the cruelties uncovered in the course of it, the carelessness and heartlessness of adults who facilitate these, and the extent of the corruption caused by money and influence wielded by one monstrous individual. I don’t recall any of her other books as being so powerful. Society in general has not changed for the better in the years since she wrote the previous Mallory. I wouldn’t call this one at all pessimistic, since justice is done is so far as it can be, and one indvidual can (cliche alert) make a difference, in fiction at least, but I think it has deep feeling behind it.

  12. I think one should mention one aspect of O’Connell books which leaves all the “competition” far behind. It is her painter’s imagination, which makes you really see the scenes of the book. “The Stone Angel” is full of the examples, crowned by the Mallory’s march through the Owltown. The opening scene of “The Chalk Girl” made me feeling I am in Central Park and witness the eerie appearance of the strange girl. I think she is one of the greatest American writers of any genre.
    This is why I dare to write here using my very faulty English…

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