- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2007


By Carol O’Connell

Putnam, $24.95, 352 pages


Portraying a detective as a sociopath coping with problems of communication with the human race while simultaneously praising her as a crime solver is rather like arguing that the fox can safely run the henhouse.

Yet that is the ingenious ploy that Carol O’Connell has used successfully in the course of eight novels about her mysterious protagonist, New York detective Kathy Mallory, a lost and feral child scavenging on the streets before she became the adopted daughter of a detective who brought the strange waif home to his wife and tried unsuccessfully to help her rejoin the human race.

She not only refused to disclose her age, estimated at from 9 to 11 years, but she crept downstairs nightly to make telephone calls in the hope that a partially remembered number would be that of her lost family. When a man answered, she hung up. If it was a woman, she would say, “It’s Kathy. I’m lost.” But those she called were never whom she sought.

What makes Mallory intriguing is that while becomingdevoted in her own strange way to her foster parents, she remained the stony-eyed maverick emotionally encased in ice. She is known in the New York police department as “Mallory the machine,” a woman comfortable with computers and guns and violence, tolerating the company of her police colleagues but disinterested in any masculine devotion.

In her world, relationships are dangerous and inadmissible. The memories embedded in Mallory date back to Grand Central Station, where, as “a small girl with matted hair and dirty clothes” she haunted the commuter hours when she sought not only tips from panhandlers, but the face of a man with the same strange green eyes as her own, the face of the father she never knew.

The quest for a lost family has always been the framework for Mallory yet in “Find Me,” Ms. O’Connell uses it as a prelude to the possibility that her young detective may find what she seeks, with what consequences nobody can predict.

In a rare moment of confidence with Charles Butler, her only close friend, Mallory recalls how her mother gave up on the husband who abandoned her: “And after a while he just forgot about her — and me.”

She adds a poignant postscript of how she engineered a casual encounter with the man she believed to be her father when she was 14 and was further devastated by the fact that he didn’t know her. She refuses to concede his lack of recognition could be the result of a belief she and her mother were dead. For Mallory, his reaction deepened the terrible rejection in which she existed.

The tracking of Mallory’s past is threaded through an account of a poignant cavalcade of parents of missing children, searching for the graves of those lost for months or years. In sinister pursuit is a serial killer. Their journey is punctuated by grim discoveries, and with them is Mallory the detective, hunting down a murderer yet also in search of her past. In the end, delving into that past takes precedence over the solving of multiple crimes, because Mallory has been built into such a complex character who plays only by her own rules and gets away with it.

Mallory’s survival testifies to her strength and that there is more to her than a frozen carapace of a person is demonstrated by those who cling to the hope that something human will one day emerge from the lovely iceberg. This is the book in which Ms. O’Connell has decided to let Mallory take a step forward with a reunion with her father and his joyful recognition of her.

The fact that Mallory laughs and cries at that moment is offered as evidence of a major emotional breakthrough. Charles Butler, the most loyal of her friends, “was awed by this evidence that all her possibilities were intact … Joy augured for a life worth living.”

Yet Mallory’s epiphany has none of the trappings of a traditional happy ending. She has been steeped too long in a psychological vacuum to bloom instantly as a happy human, let alone a contented daughter.

Although the book concludes with the observation that “Mallory’s road was run,” it is predictable that the path ahead will be rocky and circuitous. Finding her long-lost father may produce a more mellow Mallory, but she has lived too long in the shadows of her past.

The father has found the daughter, but he has no idea who or what she is or even how she got that way, and he is now confronted with the problem of what if anything he can do about the Mallory who long ago retreated into her own darkness. Mallory has never entirely trusted anyone. The question still to be answered is whether and how much her father will have a place in her life.

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

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