Book review: The Chalk Girl by Carol O’Connell

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Three seriously damaged characters take centre stage in Carol O’Connell’s haunting crime thriller ... an abused child, a sick serial killer and a psychotic detective.

For those who haven’t yet caught up with Kathy Mallory, O’Connell’s unique, smart and scarily sociopathic cop, now would be a good time to join her on her New York beat.

It’s 18 years since O’Connell introduced her unpredictable heroine in Mallory’s Oracle, the first of what is now a 10-book series, and it’s five years since her last outing in Find Me when the enigmatic Mallory went ‘walkabout’ for three months.

Manipulative, cruel almost to the point of sadistic, capable of extreme violence but single-minded in her pursuit of justice, Mallory is an inspired creation. Abandoned as a child on the mean streets of the Big Apple, she became a seasoned thief and survival expert until she was taken in by police detective Lou Markowitz and his wife.

Her experiences have left her secretive, surly and constantly under suspicion but she will risk life, limb and dismissal in pursuit of the truth.

In The Chalk Girl, Mallory is back at her desk at the Special Crimes Unit and involved in a complex and disturbing case involving blackmail, abuse, murders stretching back 15 years and some grisly and gruesome discoveries.

When eight-year-old Coco suddenly appeared in Manhattan’s Central Park and tagged onto a group of small children belonging to the elderly Mrs Lanyard’s ‘Day Camp for Gifted Children,’ she seemed so perfect.

She had red hair, blue eyes, an elfin face, a huge smile and she just wanted to be hugged. But her T-shirt was grubby, her hair full of lice and she had blood stains on her shoulder.

It fell from the sky, she said, while she was looking for her uncle, who turned into a tree. Poor child, people thought. And then the swarm of flesh-eating rats arrived... and bodies were found suspended from the park’s trees.

For Mallory, there is something about little Coco that she understands. Mallory can always recognise a kindred spirit and this one will lead her to a story of extraordinary crimes and one in particular that only someone with Mallory’s history could fully understand.

In the next few weeks, she will deal with them all ... but in her own way.

The Chalk Girl sees O’Connell on top form. Fearless and forthright, she deals in graphic violence, disturbing plotlines and dazzling contrasts. Gentle prose is punctuated by acts of extreme violence, inhumanity is offset by humour, the vulnerable are downtrodden by the powerful, the privileged take advantage of the downtrodden and the innocent are corrupted by evil.

But the inimitable Mallory is our avenging angel and we can be satisfied that justice, of sorts, will always prevail when she is on the case...

A brilliant, intelligent and gripping story that reaches far beyond the standard crime thriller.

(Headline, paperback, £6.99)