Every year, on the anniversary of a little girl’s suicide, someone draws a chalk figure–the outline of a small body–on the flagstones beneath the private school where she landed after a plunge from the roof. The school’s longtime caretaker leaves it there all day, cleaning the patio at nightfall. Phoebe Bledsoe, a descendent of the school’s founder, lives in a cottage on the grounds on New York’s Upper West Side, witnesses this annual reminder of a child nearly erased from memory and communes with her own ghosts. Chief among those haunts is her school friend Ernest who was strung up in a tree in Central Park, when Phoebe was eleven, and left to die.
As The Chalk Girl opens, a startling swarm of rats attacks tourists in Central Park, terrifying and eventually consuming an elderly school group leader. A small red-haired girl, who knows an astonishing amount about the anatomy and habits of rats, attaches herself to the group with open arms and a big smile but is grubby, filthy and rebuffed. Rats and red rain fall from the sky and the fairy child claims her uncle has turned himself into a tree. Carol O’Connell has created another Mallory mystery, full of weird goings on, distinctive characters and murky motives.
Kathy Mallory, the damaged runaway who was fostered and tamed by a beloved New York City detective, is the brilliant and somewhat lawless star of these books. She has become a homicide detective herself, a remarkably effective one. But she is a cold, efficient and unstable woman whose skills as a computer hacker and ability to psych out and intimidate bad guys solve cases even as they keep her colleagues at a distance. When bodies are discovered suspended from trees in burlap bags, Mallory (she refuses to let anybody call her by her first name) and her partner Riker set out to find the red-haired kid who may be a material witness to murder.
The Chalk Girl is just plain good. O’Connell doesn’t even give you time to fasten your seat belt before she hits the accelerator. It’s a wild ride but all a reader has to do is hang on. The events and characters are intense, surprising, funny and appallingly nasty. The grubby kid is a key and Mallory locates her, recognizing an unusual psychological pattern, Williams syndrome, immediately. As the child attaches herself to the aloof detective, more bodies are found in trees, old felonies seem to relate to the latest atrocities, the money trails of influence and extortion that devil city politics and preoccupy the wealthy are revealed and many suspects for numerous crimes surface. Throughout, the twisted character of Kathy Mallory keeps thing more than lively. Mallory could be the original model for the damaged heroine of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo–badly impaired emotions, high-functioning sleuthing, inspired and slightly scary tactics.
It is tough to sort it out in advance of the big reveal at the close but, fortunately, you don’t have to. The incidents are so entertaining—a few in an appalling way—that the story plays out like a movie. Fierce and fearsome Mallory has a soft side which she shoves out of sight at every opportunity. A tiny child is traumatized by her own kidnapping but game to keep trusting strangers, sharing her immense but quirky scholarship and her exceptional musical ability with anyone who crosses her path. The clues and malevolence form a thicket as dense as Central Park’s wooded Ramble, where the tree people are found. And O’Connell has pulled off another gripping read with a partly likable but endlessly fascinating heroine who always dishes out far more than she takes—and does it with admirable style.
The Chalk Girl (A Mallory Novel) Carol O’Connell | G. P. Putnam’s Sons 2011