“Shell Game” by Carol O’Connell

O’Connell, Carol. Shell Game (1999)
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 374 pages, $24.95 hardcover  
ISBN 0 399 14495-1

After a break for Judas Child, Carol O’Connell returns to her series character, NYPD detective Kathleen Mallory, in Shell Game.  When an elderly magician dies horribly in what appears to be a botched magic act, only Mallory suspects murder. As several aging magicians gather and prepare for their last hurrah, displays of grand illusions from magic’s more magical days, Mallory stubbornly continues her search for a killer.

After her journey south in Stone Angel, Mallory is back in characteristic form here: antagonizing her boss, Lieutenant Coffey, who thinks she’s a loose cannon; annoying the friends of her foster father, the now deceased Louis Markowitz; taking advantage of her friend Charles Butler, who’s secretly in love with her; and undercutting Detective Riker, another friend of Markowitz and now Mallory’s partner. 

But there’s a difference in this book: whereas earlier books heavily emphasized Mallory, former feral child taken in at age 10 by the childless Markowitz and his wife, Helen, as a sociopath—and perhaps even a psychopath—Shell Game attempts to give us more insight into the workings of Mallory’s mind. To do this the author employs a disembodied omniscient narrator that frequently makes sarcastic comments, couched in italics (like Yeah, right), that tell us how to interpret some action or statement. This same omniscient narrator also gives us a few indications that Mallory may not be as totally inhuman as those around her think she is (such as her gift of a fine overcoat to Riker and her considerate treatment of the elderly Mr. Halpern). 

Yet I find it unsettling that this book takes place with absolutely no reference to what happened in Stone Angel. After reading the ending of that novel, I was shocked to open Shell Game and find Mallory back in New York and back up to her old ways. Apparently O’Connell is at a crossroads with the development of Mallory and is trying to decide which way to turn. But the plot of Shell Game is too thin to carry the nuances that the author is aiming for. Despite the presence of magic tricks and magicians throughout, there is no literary magic in this novel.

© 1999 by Mary Daniels Brown

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