A review of Mallory’s Oracle (Kathleen Mallory #1), by Carol O’Connell

READ NOVEMBER 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: Jonathan Kellerman says Mallory’s Oracle is “a joy.” Nelson DeMille and other advance readers have called it “truly amazing, ” “a classic” with “immense appeal.” It is all of that, and more: a stunning debut novel about a web of unsolved murders in New York’s Gramercy Park and the singular woman who makes them her obsession. At its center is Kathleen Mallory, an extraordinary wild child turned New York City policewoman. Adopted off the streets as a little girl by a police inspector and his wife, she is still not altogether civilized now that she is a sergeant in the Special Crimes section. With her ferocious intelligence and green gunslinger eyes, Mallory (never Kathleen, never Kathy) operates by her own inner compass of right and wrong, a sense of justice that drives her in unpredictable ways. She is a thing apart. And today, she is a thing possessed. Although more at home in the company of computers than in the company of men, Mallory is propelled onto the street when the body of her adoptive father, Louis Markowitz, is found stabbed in a tenement next to the body of a wealthy Gramercy Park woman. The murders are clearly linked to two other Gramercy Park homicides Markowitz had been investigating, and now his cases become Mallory’s, his death her cause. Prowling the streets, sifting through his clues, drawing on his circle of friends and colleagues, she plunges into a netherworld of light and shadow, where people are not what they seem and truth shifts without warning. And a murderer waits who is every bit as wild and unpredictable as she….

MY REVIEW: I have to admit, when I started Mallory’s Oracle, I wasn’t sure how far I was gonna make it. I mean, when you first met her, there’s not a damned thing appealing about Kathleen Mallory. She’s about as likable as Jane Rizzoli is in The Surgeon which is to say –not! As you continue reading, though, she becomes, first interesting, then absolutely fascinating. And just how many characters can you say that about, huh? She’s called a sociopath, and while her behavior tends in  that direction, I don’t quite buy it; asocial comes closer to the mark. Certainly, she makes up her own rules as she goes. There’s a little of Dirty Harry in Mallory, as she’ll do WHATEVER IT TAKES to catch the bad guy, in this case, the person who murdered her adoptive father, as well as four elderly women. Maybe a little of the Man with No Name, too, while we’re on the Eastwood kick; but, hers is a gunfighter mentality combined with wicked computer skills — think  J.T. Sloan in Radclyffe’s Justice series. Mallory has a unique sense of justice, to be sure, but she evinces too much love for those close to her, and elicits to much love from them, to be a true socio- or psychopath. A little too much compassion, too. Another nice touch is that, while she’s a techno whiz of the first order, she’s a novice at other areas of police work, and it adds an element of realism to see her screw up in surveillance.

The other characters are largely one-dimensional save maybe Charles Butler, her father’s friend who becomes a sort of odd business partner to Mallory, but, this book  is clearly all Mallory’s show, so that’s not terribly detrimental. Mallory is memorable and unique enough to carry the book herself. She’s the clean-up hjtter, and the others simply fill out the rest of the line-up card. In fact, in a way, O’Connell over-describes some of the characters in an effort to make them memorable, I guess. If the protagonist were less of a singular character, that might be okay, but here, it feels overdone.

The mystery, frankly, is just so-so, and the killer’s identity is easy to guess very early on.  Secondary plot lines help counterbalance that weakness, though, and, at its heart, it’s the character study that’s really the important thing here, anyway. I don’t know that I’ve run across Mallory’s like as a protagonist, and, to repeat myself, she’s absolutely fascinating. Sure, we care about the mystery getting solved, ’cause the killer is vile and despicable, if somewhat of a caricature.  O’Connell isn’t able to invest him with the sort of depraved malevolence of a Gault or a Hoyt, but you still want to see him pay for his crimes. And, he does. Some reviewers object to the ending, I love the way O’Connell disposes of two malefactors at one fell swoop. Very neat. And Mallory doesn’t dirty her hands at all, at all.

As I said, Mallory is able to carry the book and make up for any deficiencies in the plot. However, she can’t quite overcome the writing itself. There’s more than a little overwriting and repetition and there are a lot of seriously peculiar sentences. Not James Joyce peculiar; first novel peculiar. And, quite frankly, the narrative just didn’t flow, and I consider that a major fault.

Despite the shortcomings mentioned above, I’d recommend Mallory’s Oracle to anyone who likes a character-driven story and some pretty quirky — overly quirky? — characters with an okay mystery thrown in. If you’re only interesting in the mystery, I’d say, give this one a pass. In any case, I”m sure I’ll read more of the series at some point, just to find out more about Mallory.

 

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