It's difficult to say what's the more gripping image in the opening pages of The Chalk Girl. Is it the strange, elfin child with the wide grin who's covered in dirt and suspicious red spots who unwisely runs up to embrace the strangers she meets on New York City streets? Or is it the enormous swarm of rats that scatters visitors at Central Park before overwhelming and gnawing on an elderly school teacher?
Best-selling mystery author Carol O'Connell is back with her antisocial New York City detective Kathy Mallory in another many-layered novel that will both satisfy and frustrate the readers left hanging by the ending in her previous Mallory book Find Me. "I know, I'm a complete bitch," O'Connell told Art Attack, explaining that she wants each of her books to stand alone.
"I never set out to write a soap opera. I do get complaints because people do fall in love with characters they meet in one book. Everybody is still waiting for the return of Sheriff Jessup from a book called The Stone Angel," she said. "These are not installments of the soap opera, they're all stand-alone novels. In that way people can pick up a book anywhere in the series and not worry about having some plot exposed in a previous book, and nobody ever thanks me for that."
The exception to that is Charles Butler, the brilliant man who aids Mallory in solving her cases as he's both captivated and frustrated by her. "Charles Butler is bulletproof because there are passages in a number of books where you see him as an old man. So you know he's not going to die. But anyone else is fair game," O'Connell said cheerily.
The author, who was going to kill the Mallory character off in her first book until a publisher "talked me into letting her live," says she's tired of "expert" psychologists labeling people on TV. "It should always be a question in your mind what other people are," she says, which in large part explains the continuing appeal of her brilliant detective who doesn't like other people (mostly) but has unexpected moments of grace.
In this book, it isn't only Mallory's mental state that's explored, but several of the characters around her, beginning with the eight-year-old girl named Coco who has Williams Syndrome, characterized by children and adults with wide smiles who are looking for friends everywhere and prone to hugging -- especially tough for someone like Mallory, who doesn't want to be touched.
"Also, the child is totally helpless and people who know Mallory just automatically fear for the child because they don't think Mallory will get it, but Mallory does," O'Connell said. "There's some level where people are always underestimating her, are thinking they've got her pegged when they don't."
Chalk Girl has been years in the making. "I started it when they were doing the early renovations on Central Park in New York City. There was an important part of the park called The Ramble that I put in the book. All my memories of that place was that it was really, really dangerous."
She tried to find people who would go into it with her and failed, so one day she put on her running shoes and grabbed a notebook (the running shoes were for a quick escape if one was needed).
"The first person I come across is a mommy with a stroller that has two babies in it. It seemed things had changed. Tourists used to disappear in there and they'd never come out again. The next people I saw was a family with kids feeding the squirrels. And then I found the birders."
In writing each book, she does extensive research but doesn't ask friends with connections to law enforcement for help. "I never go to them for help because my feeling is that it will obligate me to be kinder to them than I should be." She gets a lot of her ideas just from following local newspapers, radio and television, pointing out: "I live in New York City."
One place where she did ask for help was John Jay College for Criminal Justice, which was offering lectures on criminal justice as part of a public program. After class she talked to detectives "and they would give me more information that was an eye-opener."
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Originally, O'Connell was a painter. "That's what I was raised and educated to be. In New York City I would take night-shift jobs so I would have the daylight to paint. While I was working nights, the computer would go down and you'd have a lot of downtime, and I noticed all these books around the office and they were all murder mysteries. These were things other proofreaders had brought in to read and left behind. I got interested in the genre and it kind of worked with my personality because I like puzzles. The more complex they are, the better I like them. "
She found some of the books were fine but others "were absolutely terrible and I realized I could not do a worse job than some of these people."
Once she made the best-seller list, someone asked her how it felt. "I told them it put me in company of some of the best and some of the worst authors in the English language."
O'Connell will be signing her book at Murder by the Book, 2342 Bissonnet, on January 18 at 6:30 p.m. For information call 713-524-8597.