The Chalk Girl by Carol O’Connell

The Chalk Girl by Carol O’ConnellThe Chalk Girl by Carol O'Connell
Narrator: Barbara Rosenblat
Series: Kathy Mallory #10
Published by Recorded Books on 1/17/12
Genres: Mystery

Story: B+
Narration: A-

A young girl found wandering in Central park is a problem but when she leads the police to the dead body of her “Uncle Red” the problems begin to multiply. The dead body isn’t Coco’s “uncle,” he’s her abductor. He also isn’t the only body to be found in the park and Coco isn’t your typical child. She has Williams syndrome, a disorder that can cause (among other traits) being overly friendly towards and trusting of strangers and an unusual star-like pattern in the iris of the eye. Enter Special Crimes Unit detective Kathy Mallory and her partner, Detective Riker. Mallory might seem to have a lot in common with Coco, both having been lost children on the streets of New York and both evincing savant-like abilities, but where Coco’s experience and disorder trigger a need and ability to connect emotionally to just about anyone, Mallory’s childhood gave her the skills of a thief and an inability to make emotional connections. As the investigation proceeds, the current murders are linked to a fifteen-year-old case and corruption, blackmail, and an all-too real story of bullying twine together into an intricate and occasionally unnerving mystery.

I’m a fan of this series and whether this book is your introduction to Mallory or you’ve been along for the ride, I recommend it. I’ll admit to limited experience with the genre but if you’re looking for well-written crime fiction with vivid and fully realized characters and a complex mystery that isn’t intended to mislead you up until a shock ending but rather to engage you completely in the unraveling of the tale, you’d be hard pressed to find a better book. In addition to elegant writing, the aspect that I enjoy most with O’Connell’s books is her ability to be fiendishly creative with the mystery that develops. By the tenth book in a series, I usually expect a loss of ingenuity when it comes to the crime or mystery being investigated but not here.

The area in which those familiar with the series will find repetitive themes is character behavior and appearance. The descriptions of Mallory as a beautiful blond with startlingly green eyes who is always dressed in perfectly tailored clothes contrasts nicely with Riker’s disorganized life and rumpled and always-stained clothing. The emphasis on their outward appearances act as a reference for the inner composition of each character: Mallory as the emotionally sterile master manipulator who demands order and organization and Riker, a man who has been worn down but is always willing to protect Mallory from herself (regardless of the mess it might make of his professional and personal life) out of an unending well of sentiment for her foster father and his memories of her damaged childhood.

The word sociopath is applied to Mallory throughout the book(s) and, within the structure and rules her world was given when she was fostered by Detective Louis Markowitz at the age of nine, she behaves consistently with that description. The cadre of old men who were her foster-father’s contemporaries (a rabbi, the Chief Medical Examiner, a lawyer, and Mallory’s lieutenant) make their usual appearances, alternately impeding and being manipulated by Mallory. Charles Butler, psychologist and friend of the Markowitz family, is still hopelessly in love with Mallory while acknowledging she’s incapable of returning that emotion. As familiar as these elements are, however, they still work for me.

I liken my reading of Mallory to an astronomer who seeks to detect that which can’t be seen by observing the behavior of the visible orbiting bodies. It’s through Mallory’s interactions with these familiar supporting characters who so adore her and find her worthy of their time and affection that I catch glimpses that imply perhaps there is more going on in Mallory’s heart than we’ve been led to believe and that gets me every time. As Charles reflects on Coco’s devotion to Mallory and her child-like hope that Mallory will return her affections, I’m uncomfortably reminded as the reader that one of the emotional hooks this story has caught me with is an almost maternal wish for Mallory’s emotional shell to crack, despite an intellectual understanding that Mallory is a sociopath and always will be. It’s an amusing contradiction that I found myself very dissatisfied with what I assumed was the series end in book nine, Find Me, (possible spoiler hidden) View Spoiler » I find it intriguing that a character without a speck of empathy can evoke such emotion in me as a reader.

Like most listeners, a change in narrator this far into a series (all previous audiobooks have been narrated by Alyssa Bresnahan) usually creates a stumbling block for me but quite frankly, Barbara Rosenblat is A Voice. With her distinctive cadence, tone, resonance and a delivery that I find a bit closer to VO/theater than typical audiobook narration, it’s impossible to mistake her for any other narrator. That type of statement is usually followed by me saying “which doesn’t really work for me” but Ms. Rosenblat is a singular exception. Each character’s voice is built true to the author’s intent and is distinct in tone and speech pattern. The male/female differentiation is incredibly realistic to my ears and although the level of…acting?… emotional interpretation?… during the narrative sections strikes me as more suited to a story told first-person rather than third, her dry delivery is such a good match for the text/story that it all combines into an excellent listening experience.