Mallory’s Oracle was great fun. Everything about it was appealing – from the unique main character (unique in my experience, though I’ve seen comparisons to Dexter) to the setting to the trappings of the case to the writing.
Kathleen Mallory puts a different spin on “sociopath”. I’m used to thinking of the label as only applying to the ones who go out and kill dozens (and applying to men) (like my former boss), and I suppose there is the seed of the idea that, left to the tender mercies of the city or the foster program, Mallory might have become famous as a rare female serial killer. However, she was not left to any such fate, and while she is far from civilized she is a fierce proponent of the law – when it suits her – as she learned from her foster father, Lt. Markowitz. I’d be curious to read her point of view. As it is, the image of her gained through others’ eyes is fascinating – a network has been formed to keep an eye on her, both for her own sake and the rest of the world’s. She is beloved – but her leash is kept rather short, as those who care for her never lose sight of the fact that her morality is a thin veneer. What’s rather wonderful about her is that, brilliant as she is – and her IQ is substantial – most of her experience as an officer has been in front of a computer. There she has no equal. On a crime scene, though, or working surveillance or questioning witnesses, her inexperience gangs up with her lack of socialization and sets her back rather than moving her forward. She screws up. She’ll never admit it, ever, but she does.
All of the characters are wonderful. Louis Markowitz, dead as the novel begins, and his wife Helen, dead several years before, are as much of a presence as Kathy’s putative partner Riker. The department lieutenant, Coffey, taking over Louis’s office and position, is not welcome by the department, but is not the idiot his new crew assume he is, or perhaps want to believe he is. The inhabitants of the apartment building where Mallory works during her bereavement leave are bizarre flesh and blood – one of the benefits to setting a series in New York has to be the ability to fill the stories with absolutely anyone. Best of all is Charles Butler, the odd and odd-looking friend of the family, some fifteen years older than Mallory and caught in a consciously hopeless love for her. He’s another genius, with major flaws and blind spots, and he is rapidly becoming one of my favorite fictional people.
There is an obvious, though not obtrusive, illustration in the cast of characters of nature versus nurture. Louis’s affectionate but entirely serious epithet for the Kathy he arrested trying (probably successfully) to break into a Jaguar was “baby sociopath”. (Actually, that’s becoming a flaw in the series; “baby sociopath”, “baby felon”; “baby whore”…) She is barely socialized, barely comprehending of the whys and wherefores of thou shalt nots, and the question is left open of what she would have become had Markowitz not accidentally adopted her. Or even if it had happened later. In the cast of victims and suspects of Mallory’s Oracle, there are many damaged people, and the most damaged of them lacked what Mallory chanced onto: love.
The setting is New York, NY, and it’s terrific. Rent-control and little oases of green and breathtaking architecture, and blocks that are a whole different sort of breath-taking, with “rats dancing on garbage pail lids” and crack whores, it’s NYC, and all-inclusive. I admit to being partial to books set in places I know even a little, and though the commercials made it a cliché I do love New York.
I never expected the thread of the story about Charles’s cousin Max Candle and his glorious days of illusion accompanied by his wife, Edith, famous in her own right as a medium. I was surprised by the magic and mediums – and, for once, it was a pleasant surprise. It all tied in together nicely. Detectives strive to solve mysteries, and here was a whole world of mystery not quite amenable to their investigation. It’s all fascinating to me, and well used.
I was surprised by the writing. I read one book somewhere in the middle of the series long ago, Stone Angel, put Carol O’Connell on my List, and collected the books as I found them, but was never impelled to read them until now, anticipating the receipt of the latest Kathy Mallory (Chalk Girl) as an LTER. So I had forgotten why I enjoyed it so much. I think the only thing I disliked in this read was the dogs; abused to a horrific degree, they are mentioned without much explanation or any resolution – including one family pet which launched an unprovoked attack.
There is a sense of humor about this book, sometimes wry and sometimes whimsical, never the main object of the text. And alongside the unexpected humor is an unanticipated poetry. Again, it is never the point of the writing, but instead phrases are scattered as grace notes, like a support pillars shaped into acanthus-crowned Corinthian columns instead of plain unadorned square props. I noticed dance referenced often, literally and descriptively: Max danced, and well; one of the victim family member/suspects was a dancer; light danced, and so did rats. Magic and poetry and dance – alongside blood and age and terror, it was unexpected and surprisingly beautiful. It’s not, apparently, to everyone’s taste; I enjoyed it. I will be working through the rest of the series to better review Chalk Girl, and I plan on enjoying this.