Before there was Lisbeth Salander, there was Kathleen Mallory. Each was on her own from a young age, doing what she needed to do to survive. Each managed to find substitute parents—for Lisbeth, her guardian, Holger Palmgren, and, for Mallory, her foster parents Louis and Helen Markowitz. Each became known as a computer whiz, able to hack into websites and data bases that were supposedly tamper proof. Each was considered a sociopath, one whose view of right and wrong was often skewed, but more often than not, was more right than wrong. And each has provided popular, page-turning, can’t-put-it-down reading from their creators— Stieg Larssen and Carol O’Connell.
Unfortunately for Lisbeth’s fans, Larssen died after completing only three installments in his series—The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked a Hornet’s Nest. Mallory fans are more fortunate, able to enjoy ten mysteries in the series beginning with Mallory’s Oracle published in 1994. Still, we’ve had to wait six years between 2006‘s Find Me and the just published The Chalk Girl. It was worth the wait.
After a three month absence, Mallory has returned to her job as a New York City police detective assigned to the Special Crimes Unit. What she did and where she went during that hiatus has remained a mystery to her bosses. There’s still some question whether she’s psychologically fit to return to work. (With Mallory, her psychological fitness is always open to interpretation). She’s so good at what she does, that even the top brass is willing to cut her a break to take advantage of her talents. And this case (or more accurately, cases) will take everything Mallory can deliver.
The mystery opens with one of those “yuck” moments every urban dweller fears—a park being overrun by rats. An exterminator hired by the city decides to battle the vermin by dispensing toxic bombs. Rather than killing the rodents, however, the bombs merely send them scurrying, scaring to death—literally—a teacher herding a group of children to safety. When Mallory and her partner, Riker, arrive on the scene, she shows no mercy. “Most of the vermin had cleared the path when one brazen animal stopped in front of their vehicle. The lone rat reared up on his hind legs and faced them down—absolutely fearless—almost admirable. Mallory ran over him.”
Mallory’s on a mission to locate a little red haired girl who is lost in the park. The girl is named Coco and she has Williams syndrome, a condition that causes her to seek affection from everyone she meets—perfect bait for a sexual predator. Coco is spotted in the park by Mrs. Ortega, a cleaning woman who happens to work for Charles Butler, a brilliant but awkward psychologist who carries around like a heavy burden his unrequited love for Mallory. In this situation, however, Charles’s first job will be to protect Coco, who has witnessed a crime. There is blood on Coco’s blouse and she talks about red rain falling from the sky. Soon bodies starts turning up in trees and Mallory is sucked into solving a crime that began decades ago and will involve a prestigious school and foundation.
Most of the fun in a Mallory mystery is rooting for this damaged yet brilliant woman. We love it when she stays two steps ahead of everyone, the cops and the criminals. O’Connell has created a multi-dimensional character who never loses her ability to surprise. Just when we think Mallory is all sharp edges, she shows a soft side–stealing into Coco’s room in the evenings to replace the dying lightning bugs with fresh ones. She arms Coco with a one-button cellphone. And the little girl, in love with Mallory, too, pushes it whenever she needs that connection. Dare we hope that Mallory needs that love, too?
The Chalk Girl