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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Chalk Girl’

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THE CHALK GIRL
By Carol O'Connell
Putnam, $25.95, 384 pages

Detective Kathy Mallory is tall, blond, green-eyed and glamorous, with her custom-tailored linen blazer, and crisp jeans, not to mention her .357 Magnum whichshe prefers to a Glock. She is also a well-mannered monster. Even her friends concede it. Perhaps it isn't surprising, given her background as a 9-year-old abandoned child stealing her way through the mean streets of New York like a feral cat until she is adopted by a police officer who gives her a home and a family. But not even that could turn Mallory into a human being with traditional emotional reactions.

On the other hand, she grew up to be a formidable poker player and a very good cop. She is known as Mallory the Machine to her colleagues and as Kathy to almost nobody because she trusts nobody. The emotional firewall surrounding Mallory makes her both captivating and sinister and Carol O'Connell has now written 11 books exploring that strange psyche.

Mallory is a member of the Special Crimes Unit in New York, and she tries their patience. As Lt. Jack Coffey points out, few detectives choose to take a three-month drive around 48 states without bothering to explain why. That caper put her on probation and required a new psychological examination, but it didn't slow Mallory down when she sauntered back in. Nobody had even gone near her desk when she was gone - they said the air was colder over there. And they also said that her psychiatrist was so infatuated with her that "if she were barking at the moon, he would say she was having an off day."

So it seems appropriate that in this case, Mallory meets Coco, a lost 8-year-old redhead who smiles all the time, even at a grisly crime scene in New York's Central Park. The man Coco calls her Uncle Red is hanging from a tree in a burlap bag dripping blood onto her T-shirt and he is only the first of the victims of the killer called the "Hunger Artist" whose corpses have turned the picturesque setting into a graveyard. Not to mention the hungry rats that infest the spot.

Coco turns out to be an authority on rats, as she assures anyone who will listen. Rats, she says, go to heaven and sometimes come back. And rats cry, she adds. When Coco is taken into police protection, and psychologically examined, she is found to be suffering from Williams Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder distinguished by an elfin appearance, a desperate need for affection and intellectual precocity. Coco can't button her shirt or lace up her shoes, but she can play "Melancholy Baby" on the piano and she has read Dickens. As might be expected, she becomes devoted to the tall blond detective who strokes her hair "as she might pet a dog."

Mallory is highly protective of Coco, but she also is aware of her value as a vital witness in a vicious murder investigation. The structure of the plot hinges on tortured messages from a little boy known as Dead Ernie. It takes the police investigators down a dark and bloody path that leads to a corrupt high-level police officer, as well as to the world of wealthy and wicked socialite Grace Driscol-Bledsoe and her dreadful daughter, Willy.

At one point, Driscol-Bledsoe says to Mallory, "As one monster to another..." And the reader knows what she means. Probably so does Mallory who seems to occupy a unique niche in law enforcement, partly because of her legendary adopted father's reputation there, and also because being a monster doesn't mean she is bad at her job. As long as she can do it her way without interference from almost anyone.

The case of the Hunger Artist is tailored to the cold-blooded approach of Mallory as evidence discloses not only embezzlement but hideous crimes dating back 15 years, which involve the agony of children. Mallory patiently builds her case, backed by a tiny cadre of police loyalists set in the same mold as the man who trained her. She is a product of a grim childhood yet the complexity of her personality suggests that Mallory would never have been a child who fitted into a bustling and happy household. It is significant that of the protective police surrounding her, the child Coco fixates on Mallory. It is Mallory's love she wants, and in a demonstration of sad sophistication Coco realizes she can never have it.

Nobody can hurt her while Mallory is there, but Mallory's presence is entirely linked to Coco's importance in her investigation. She is kind to the needy child, but there is no room for a Coco in the remote world of an ice queen. Ms. O'Connell has never suggested there is any likelihood that Mallory will one day become warm and cuddly. If she did, she would no longer be Mallory and not nearly as interesting.

• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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