It took a while, but I finally decided that it wasn’t really necessary for me to read all the other Mallory novels before reading the ARC of The Chalk Girl I received as a LibraryThing Early Reviewer (thank you!). While it is good to read the books in sequence, thereby having a better idea of who Kathy Mallory is and why, I don’t think it’s mandatory; with these books there is a trend of “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” – while it is very much a series (and they are all very good), little that happens in any given book affects anything in any book that follows. So I skipped a couple, and will return to them one day soon.
A horrifying sequence of events comes together in the beginning of this book to break out into two separate but very much related Issues for Mallory and her partner Riker, and of course her other partner Charles Butler, to deal with: three people found hanging from trees in Central Park; and a blood-spattered little girl called Coco who is rootless and helpless and strange, in great need of Team Mallory and also of invaluable aid to them.
Never, ever, in all of the murder mysteries I have read and seen has there ever been a potential victim like Willy Fallon. She was introduced in mortal danger, and I hoped against hope that she would be saved. By the time she regained consciousness again I wished the rats had eaten her alive. Within another chapter or two I wished the rats had eaten her alive and done it slowly. Over several days. Weeks, if possible. Rats with dull teeth. Incontinent rats with dull teeth and tapeworms. I’ve never experienced such a whiplash reversal of emotions about a character. And it’s been a long time since I’ve felt such an extravagance of hatred for a character.
About Kathy Mallory there is no real whiplash. I don’t like her. I’m not supposed to. Compassion is called for, from anyone with any familiarity with previous books in the series and Mallory’s past, but liking? Only, perhaps, as some science fictional future person might like some alien who might look human but lack most human qualities. (Yes, of course, I was going to say Vulcan – but that doesn’t work even jokingly.) Mallory is damaged. The damage was mitigated, slightly, when Lou Markowitz plucked her from the streets when she was ten (or twelve, but probably eleven), but the influence he and his lovely wife managed to have over her created something like a trompe l’oiel mural – it looks right, especially from a distance, but it’s not what you think. Manners, respect for others’ property and feelings, empathy: with her it’s all a veneer, learned rote behavior without understanding. So, no, she’s not likeable; if you’re her friend, she will use you as needed, because she has little conventional understanding of what friendship is or should be. (A comment which actually could apply to several people I’ve known, but that’s beside the point.) Her interactions with the child in this book are … disturbing. Is she growing a soul? Or is this just more evidence of her sociopathy, the ability to charm, and charm into usefulness, without meaning or feeling a bit of it? She sits on the floor with Coco to play or tie shoes – but is that simply a means to an end, or a temporarily gentler way of using the little girl? Is this line of questioning even a valid one, or just me still trying to jam Mallory into a more traditional pigeonhole?
The Mallory novels are a study in how a sociopath – made, apparently, not born – can function in society, and particularly in a position of power and responsibility: as a police officer. How she reconciles her overlay of training as a child with the lessons she learned fighting for her life on the streets of New York. How the people in her life reconcile her incomprehension of basic empathy and all that springs from it with the love they can’t help having for her from her childhood. Mallory is occasionally called a “paladin” in the text, and while it seemed completely wrong to me at first – the image the word brings to mind a paragon of virtue and goodness. If Mallory is a paragon of some of the traditional virtues – say, chastity (that’s the only one I can think of that fits her) – it’s almost incidental to her character; her morality is highly dependent on circumstance. But “any determined advocate or defender of a noble cause” fits. Determined? No one ever was moreso. And if she learned anything from the only father she ever knew, it is that killers are to be hunted down and taken out of society. Her addition to that credo is in whatever manner presents itself.
The horror element is strong in The Chalk Girl. There is not only the cluster of appalling murders (and attempted murders) and all of the horripilous events surrounding them at the beginning, there is the chain of events leading to the murders. An expensive, exclusive school, plus some evil children with rich parents, plus one child with less wealthy parents all but on his own in said school, plus school administrators who literally look away as the one child is set upon by others … But really, what could be done? The image of a teacher or the headmaster taking an unwavering stand and defending the boy, launching an barrage of punishments and requirements at the offenders and their parents, is a lovely one … but it seems very clear that such a stand would be met by the moneyed accuseds’ parents with a prompt pink slip, character assassination to prevent further employment, and immediate replacement by someone more malleable. “Not my child” would be the uniform response – even (especially) from the parents who knew damn good and well what their children were made of – that is assuming the complaints ever even reached the parents to start with – and one little boy’s suffering would have in the end been every bit as unheeded as if no one spoke up for him at all. Administrators acted, heinously but almost understandably, out of self-preservation. The boy’s own parents … there might be blame that could be laid there, but under the circumstances perhaps not. Someone, somewhere might have gone to the police – but given that the responding officer might have been the filthily corrupt waste of flesh who became involved when it was too late that might have been as pointless as anything else. It was a terrible confluence of events – and all terribly realistic.
And therein lies the horror. The fact that no one would listen combined with the fact that the boy (and his attackers) knew no one would listen to produce tragedy. And from that tragedy – a pair of tragedies, actually, or perhaps a triad depending on how you look at it – a path was laid directly to the events that begin the book.
There is something of a pattern emerging among the Mallory novels. Magic: check; the beginning of the book has a dark fairy tale feel to it, and Coco is half an inch away from being a fairy. Isolation of story: check; while events in the previous book are mentioned, they are all but irrelevant, and seem to have had no impact on Mallory and not much on anyone else – and I’d bet money we’ll never hear from Coco again. Two separate yet connected storylines following a case for Charles and a murder or several for Kathy and Riker: check. Crime in the distant past sparking/laying groundwork for/leading up to present day crimes being investigated by Mallory and Riker: check; a wino (her word, not mine) was murdered some fifteen years ago, and a boy died, and while an innocent was jailed the perpetrators went their merry ways untouched. Till now. Mallory investigates said old case, whether it’s considered closed or not, whether she’s courting dismissal by doing so or not: check.
Still, formula or not, the Mallory novels are out of the ordinary. The writing is infallibly lovely, even describing the ugliest things. Even though the formula is fairly closely adhered to in each novel, there is no real sense of déjà vu. The characters are every bit as vivid, the story just as gripping, here as in the first one.