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‘Before Lisbeth Salander, there was Kathy Mallory.’

So it says on the front cover of The Chalk Girl, and so it is. Set in New York, the first Mallory novel was Mallory’s Oracle, published in 1995; The Chalk Girl is the tenth. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was published in 2005. Mallory also predates Dexter as a sociopath-protagonist (Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the first in that series, was published in 2004).

Both Salander and Dexter partake of some of Mallory’s characteristics. Mallory has a horrific background of abandonment and abuse and, like Dexter, she has chosen to harness her anti-social traits to work on the side of right instead of against it.

Mallory is a police officer with criminal tendencies. She is as computer-savvy as Salander and thinks nothing of hacking for any information she needs. Unlike Dexter, she doesn’t have a compulsion to kill, but like both Salander and Dexter she finds it virtually impossible to form intimate relationships with others, to sympathise or to empathise. She just doesn’t get human (or humane) behaviour, and she makes no allowances for it.

But, also like Salander and Dexter, she has chinks in her armour, which allow the reader to at least partly sympathise with her as a protagonist, and these chinks appear to be widening as the books progress.

When we first meet her, in Mallory’s Oracle, the only people she seems to have anything like feelings for are her adoptive parents – Lou Markowitz (the Serious Crimes Unit Commander) and his wife Helen – who took her in off the streets when she was a homeless, traumatised and feral child of around 10. Markowitz taught her the rules by which she could ‘pass’ as normal, and Helen gave her unconditional love. By The Chalk Girl, Markowitz and Helen are both dead, but Markowitz’s closest friends, including Mallory’s police partner, Riker, have all adopted Mallory as their particular problem and they all love her in their various ways. They are what pass for Mallory’s friends, and she tolerates them because of Markowitz. She may even have feelings for them, but she doesn’t recognise feelings.

In The Chalk Girl, she seems to widen the scope of her almost-feelings to take in the child of the title. The little girl, ‘Coco’, is found in Central Park after witnessing the murder of her ‘uncle’, whose bleeding body is found in a tree. Mallory, back in the Serious Crimes Unit after an absence, and with the authorities trying to keep her on a short leash, investigates the murder with Riker. They uncover a trail of killings, blackmail, criminal selfishness and abuse stretching back for more than 15 years.

Coco is not only traumatised by her recent experiences, she also has Williams’ Syndrome, which means she is unusually vulnerable and craves physical affection. But when Charles Butler, one of Mallory’s inner circle, an immensely rich philanthropist, psychologist and all-round genius, who is hopelessly and unrequitedly in love with Mallory, takes a firm stand on how Coco will be treated, he almost loses Mallory’s trust entirely – though she still manages to subvert his rules and extract as much information as she can from the little girl. To Mallory, anyone who isn’t with her entirely and on every occasion is against her, and she resorts to emotional and actual blackmail, threats and every dirty trick in her repertoire to get her own way.

The child becomes besotted with Mallory, and Mallory seems to feel something almost like affection for her – she certainly behaves out of character towards her on several occasions.  It comes as a relief to the reader that Mallory might be capable of some form of caring, in the form of empathy for other damaged children, as her character can be unrelentingly appalling – as when she humiliates a Crime Scene Investigator in The Chalk Girl:

 ‘Two of them were stunned,’ said Mallory. ‘Only Willy Fallon was hit hard enough to knock her out. The perp needed to keep his victims quiet.’ She picked up the duct tape. ‘And this won’t do the job.’ She ripped off a piece and covered the CSI’s mouth. ‘If you want to make noise, you can still be heard. Try it.’            

And now he was heard. The sound he made resembled the amplified buzz of a startled mosquito. When he raised his hands to pull off the tape, she slapped his wrists. ‘No, that’s cheating.’ She used more tape to bind his hands behind his back.

The lieutenant knew this was the time to step in, but one glance around the room told him that his whole squad was solidly behind Mallory’s bad behaviour. They loved this. She was one of them again, and all for the minor price of a twit’s dignity.

 And, unlike Salander and Dexter, Mallory is sometimes in danger of becoming an impossibly slick super-hero in the American mould (if you leave aside her sociopathy). She’s tall, beautiful, stylish, physically fit, intellectually brilliant and always right. She wins all her battles. This can get a bit tedious sometimes, and she can come across as a bit smug, although this is always mitigated by the love, anxiety and pity felt for her by the inner circle, particularly the ugly Charles, and by our knowledge of her early life. It’s interesting that in The Chalk Girl, Charles actually seems to win some of the arguments with Mallory (though he doesn’t escape reprisal), as usually she must win them all. She sees the world in black and white, rigidly applying the principles Markowitz tried to instil. Loyalty must be absolute and she punishes disloyalty in anyone, even if it’s someone acting  according to their conscience or for her benefit.

Although, as is obvious, the character of Mallory dominates these stories, as with all of O’Connell’s books The Chalk Girl also has an intriguing and intricate plot line, with secrets from the past leading to horrific resolutions in the present, strong writing, original characters and a cracking pace leading to a satisfying denouement. It’s told on several narrative levels, including diary entries from an unknown little boy, who also contributes to the plot as a ghost-friend to another important character, keeping the reader informed of a mysterious level of back-story that Mallory and Riker have to work to discover for themselves.

The Chalk Girl Carol O’Connell Headline 2012 448pp PB  $29.99

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