Fiction Review

“Stone Angel” by Carol O’Connell

O’Connell, Carol. Stone Angel (1997)  
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 341 pages, $24.95 hardcover  
ISBN 0 399 14234 7

In Stone Angel Charles Butler tracks Mallory to Dayborn, Louisiana, where she’s gone in search of her past: “Though she had buried it deep, the act had come back in bits and pieces of unguarded thoughts and violent dreams. . . When Markowitz died, her life had begun to unravel. Ugly images had plagued her every day since she had laid the old man in the ground” (pp. 64-65). Charles, having recognized Mallory’s face in a stone angel shown in a newspaper article about famous plantation gardens along the River Road in Louisiana, has come to Dayborn looking for the sculptor, Henry Roth.

O’Connell paints vivid pictures of several local people who figure prominently in Mallory’s story: Miss Augusta, an elderly, eccentric recluse; Sheriff Tom Jessop; Lilith Beaudare, a cousin of Augusta, who trained at the police academy and has just come to Dayborn to work as a deputy; and Malcolm Laurie, who runs the New Church, “miracles for sale.” The Laurie clan have taken over most of the town; many residents have turned over their land to the New Church in return for a place to live until they die. These characters control the dynamics of the closed, small-town society. And as the story progresses the setting gradually becomes more and more surrealistic—James Lee Burke meets Shirley Jackson.

Sheriff Jessop asks the question we’ve all been wondering about when he addresses the jailed Mallory: 

“What the hell happened to you out there?” He grasped the bars again. “You were the sunniest child. Look at you now. You got the coldest eyes I’ve ever seen. If I knew who did this to you, I swear I’d kill him.” (p. 66)

Readers who have stuck with Mallory through the three earlier novels are well rewarded here as they, along with Mallory, learn the answer to that question.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Killing Critics” by Carol O’Connell

O’Connell, Carol. Killing Critics  (1996)  
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 309 pages, $23.95 hardcover  
ISBN 0 39914168 5

I found this to be the least enjoyable of O’Connell’s Mallory books. In this installment, an art-related murder leads Mallory back to an unsolved brutal double homicide Markowitz had worked on 12 years earlier. The plot of this novel involves performance art, including the possibility of murder as art.

In retrospect, the main purpose of this book seems to be to set up the next one, Stone Angel. Killing Critics continues the emphasis on Mallory’s cold, almost inhuman nature. A major character in the story is Quinn, an art critic: “Quinn had a limited range of expression, devoid of emotion even when he smiled, only communicating cool indifference and élan” (p. 8). But the cool, detached Quinn realizes he has met his match when he first sees Mallory: “a lifetime’s experience in stereotyping humans had failed him.  He could not hazard her occupation or her exact status in the world.  All he knew for certain was that her eyes were green, and if it was true that one could read another’s soul by the eyes, this young woman didn’t have one” (p. 17). Even Dr. Slope, the medical examiner who was a long time friend of Markowitz, provokes Mallory because “Her anger was his only method of ferreting out her humanity in what limited range of emotion she possessed” (p. 130).

Killing Critics ends with Charles Butler leaving a note professing his love for Mallory. But in the epilogue we learn “Mallory would never read Charles’s note.”  She’s on a train with “no stitch of formal identification that would tie her to a name or a place. This was the way she had come to New York as a child, with only her wits and a bit of a mother’s blood on her hands.  And this was the way she voyaged out again, out of New York City and into the great sprawling landscape of America, which was another country” (p. 309).

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“The Man Who Cast Two Shadows” by Carol O’Connell

O’Connell, Carol. The Man Who Cast Two Shadows (1995)  
Jove Books, 308 pages, $6.99 paperback  
ISBN 0 515 11890 7

After a short prologue, the first chapter of this book opens with a page about the young child Kathy who had a phone number written on her hand. The first three digits of the number were obliterated by a smear of blood. Kathy had learned to imitate the tones of all the numbers over the phone and had been calling the four legible numbers on her hand preceded by different combinations for the first three digits. Whenever someone answered the phone, she’d say, “It’s Kathy. I’m lost.”

With this reminder that Mallory started out as a lost waif, we enter the main story. The body of a young woman has been found in Central Park; the woman has been tentatively identified as Kathleen Mallory. Riker, an alcoholic cop in his fifties who was a close friend of Louis Markowitz, arrives at the autopsy to confirm the identity. The dead woman is not Mallory, but she’s wearing a tailored blazer with Mallory’s name in it. 

This is enough to make Mallory take the case personally. She had been suspended from the police force after shooting a civilian, but she’s recently been reinstated and assigned to the computer room. Her boss, Jack Coffey, is reluctant to assign her to this murder case, but Riker convinces him to give her a chance at it.

This novel emphasizes—almost tiresomely—the notion of Mallory’s cold, inhuman manner that was introduced in Mallory’s Oracle. For example, one of the characters “stared into her eyes for too long and became unsettled by them” (p. 14). Again: “Her voice had a rough edge that would scare any sane person into backing off with no sudden movements” (p. 229). An elderly witness has the same reaction when Mallory questions her: “The child before her was so lovely, but there was an aspect to the girl that was inhuman.  Eyes like a cat she had” (p. 204). Even people who know Mallory and love her because of their friendship with Markowitz frequently refer to her as a devil, a witch, a sociopath, a maniac, a liar, someone who should never be trusted.

This language is figurative, of course, but O’Connell introduces a touch of the occult involving Charles Butler, another friend of Mallory’s adoptive father, Markowitz. Butler is a tall, gangly man with a huge nose, a funny-looking face, a photographic memory, and an exceptionally high IQ. He’s in love with Mallory but knows better than to try to get close to her.

Charles’s Uncle Max was a magician. One of Uncle Max’s friends, also a magician, has missed his dead wife, Louisa, so much that he recreated her reality. People in the room with the magician could see the imprint where the invisible Louisa sat down on a sofa; Charles himself as a boy saw the imprint of the dead Louisa’s kiss on the magician’s cheek. In this book Charles reads the manuscript of the murder victim’s autobiographical novel that Mallory finds on the dead woman’s computer. He comes to know the woman so well that he tries to create her succubus so he can ask her (it?) who killed her. He does manage to create the woman’s image, which appears to him and talks to him (although she doesn’t name her killer). Just as Charles begins to wonder if he’s gone completely mad, the image fades and refuses to reappear.

Mallory is able to solve the case using her considerable computer hacking skills. Jack Coffey thinks about the way Mallory obtains information:  “Breaking laws to keep them was the norm now” (p. 203). There is an indication that even the saintly Markowitz was willing to use the information Mallory provided him; he just didn’t want to know how she had gotten it.

The book ends by teasing us with a bit more information about Mallory’s mysterious background. Louis and Helen Markowitz never formally adopted Kathy because she refused to talk about her past; they therefore could make no effort to locate her parents, so Kathy remained legally a foster child. But Charles tricks Riker and Dr. Edward Slope, another old friend of Louis’s, into telling him about the videotape that Louis once found while investigating a child pornography ring. Knowledge of the contents of this tape will change both Charles’s and the reader’s attitude toward the enigmatic Mallory

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Swimming to Catalina” by Stuart Woods

Woods,Stuart. Swimming to Catalina (1998)  
HarperCollins, 311 pages, $25.00 hardcover  
ISBN 0 06 018369 1

In his latest adventure Stone Barrington travels to Hollywood at the request of the country’s hottest movie star, Vance Calder. Vance is now married to writer Arrington Carter, Stone’s former lover. When Vance tells Stone that Arrington is missing and asks for his help in finding her, it’s a request that Stone can’t refuse. Once Stone arrives in Hollywood he finds that he likes the expensive cars, the fancy restaurants, the glamorous people, even the opportunity to act in a movie—until he realizes that all the activity is distracting him from doing what he’s there for.

Stone Barrington continues to think with the least intellectual part of his male anatomy. I keep hoping he’ll learn a lesson from his behavior. I’m talking practicality here, not necessarily morality. All anyone who wants to search Stone’s hotel room has to do is arrange for a beautiful woman to meet him for a drink in the hotel bar. Stone will gladly follow her home and stay for as long as she’ll have him.

The plot of Swimming to Catalina is particularly thin and uninspired, and Stone Barrington’s superhuman feats stretch credulity beyond the breaking point. Also, the ending appears to be an attempt to graft some depth of character onto our one-dimensional hero. But Stone’s reaction to circumstances at the end of this novel doesn’t jibe with his earlier character; I don’t buy it for a New York minute.

Although not as bad as Dirt, Swimming to Catalina is a squarely mediocre novel. What I find so disappointing about Stuart Woods’s recent fixation on Stone Barrington is that Woods has demonstrated his ability to create more complex characters and more interesting plots than the Stone Barrington novels reveal. Fortunately, I still have several more of Woods’s earlier works yet to read.

(In addition to Swimming to Catalina, Stone Barrington has appeared in three earlier novels: New York Dead [1991], Dirt [1996], and Dead in the Water [1997]. The best of these four works is Dead in the Water, in which a strong plot makes the lack of character development less noticeable.)

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Secret Prey” by John Sandford

Sandford, John. Secret Prey (1998)  
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 392 pages, $24.95 hardcover  
ISBN 0 399 14382 3

After an interlude with Anna Batory on the West Coast, in Secret Prey John Sandford puts detective Lucas Davenport back to work in Minneapolis. Daniel S. Kresge, chairman of the board, president, and CEO of the Polaris Bank System, is murdered at his cabin in northern Minnesota on the first day of deer-hunting season. Accompanying Kresge on this hunting trip are four of the bank’s top employees, all of whom have a motive for killing him. Minneapolis police chief Rose Marie Roux assigns the case to Lucas because she thinks he needs a high-adrenaline case to counteract the onset of depression caused by the departure of his former fiancée.

The reader learns about half way through who the bad guy is. This approach is not unusual for Sandford. His readers often know who’s guilty but are caught up in the suspense of whether Lucas can catch the guilty party before someone else is killed. However, I sense a shift of emphasis here. Sandford seems more willing to explore the character involved rather than simply relying on the action of the plot to carry the story. This shift adds a bit more depth and interest than usual. The change is welcome enough that Sandford can even be forgiven for the commonly used psychological type he employs as the villain.

Followers of Lucas Davenport will not be disappointed in this latest installment.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Mallory’s Oracle” by Carol O’Connell

O’Connell, Carol. Mallory’s Oracle (1994)  
Jove Books, 310 pages, $5.99 paperback   
ISBN 0 515 11647 5

NYPD detective Louis Markowitz has been tracking a serial killer who preys on elderly women. Now Markowitz has been murdered, his body found near that of the killer’s latest victim. One of the officers who arrive on the scene is Sgt. Kathleen Mallory, who calmly analyzes the situation and looks for evidence.

Slowly—and shockingly—the reader learns that Markowitz was Mallory’s adoptive father. He caught her stealing one afternoon when she was about 10 years old and took her home with him instead of to Juvenile Hall. Markowitz’s wife, Helen, cleaned Kathy up and saw something underneath the child’s dirt and streetwise wariness. Thereafter Mallory stayed with the childless Markowitz couple, who raised her as their own daughter. Kathy became particularly devoted to Helen, who tried to teach the girl some ethical standards to replace the survival ethics she had learned on the street. But Kathy never did catch on to the larger concepts of right and wrong; she learned only whether Helen would approve or disapprove of certain actions. Even now, after Helen’s death from cancer, it is Helen’s imagined reaction that guides Mallory’s self-serving sense of morality.

Mallory’s beauty combined with her coldness make people shrivel up in front of her: “her eyes were cold green jewels set in ivory and framed in an aureole of gold” (p. 4).  Time after time all she has to do is stare at people, particularly men, to get them to back down or leave her alone. People are important only in relation to what they can do for her: “Mallory stared at the old woman with as much compassion as she would give to furniture” (p. 11).

Mallory is also an extremely intelligent computer whiz. “From her earliest days on the force, she had always been more at home with the NYPD computers than people, living or dead” (p. 10).

There is a mystery underlying the story, the question of who is killing elderly women, and why. But this is not primarily a mystery or a police procedural novel. It is a character novel, driven by the amoral, anti-social, even sociopathic Mallory, who’s almost too bad to be true. This first novel gives only a glimpse. The remaining books in the series fill in Mallory’s background and character. We will probably never come to like her, but we will at least understand her. Readers who stick with Mallory through the first four novels will be well rewarded for their efforts.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“N” is for Noose by Sue Grafton

Grafton, Sue. “N” is for Noose (1998)  
Henry Holt and Company, 289 pages, $25.00  hardcover  
ISBN 0 8050 3650 4

Sue Grafton’s new novel finds Kinsey Millhone ready to leave Nevada after caring for Dietz, her off-again, on-again lover, for a couple of weeks after his knee-replacement operation. Dietz refers Kinsey for a job he can’t take on because of his surgery. On her way back home to Santa Teresa, Kinsey stops off in the small, isolated community of Nota Lake, California, to check out the job.

Tom Newquist, a deputy with the Nota Lake sheriff’s department, died of an apparent heart attack several weeks earlier. But his widow, Selma, thinks that Tom was acting distracted for a while before his death. Selma hires Kinsey to find out what was bothering Tom, just to clear up what she calls this “unfinished business.” When Kinsey begins asking questions, she quickly learns that everyone loved Tom, that nobody likes Selma, and that just about everybody thinks Tom was a saint for putting up with being married to Selma. Kinsey finds out just how efficiently the residents of a small community can circle the wagons to protect one of their own and to keep an outsider out. But when someone wearing a ski mask attacks and threatens her, Kinsey begins to believe Selma’s notion that Tom might have been harboring some secret. 

“N” is for Noose contains many of Grafton’s characteristic strengths. Her skill with telling details is evident in the picture of small-town life that she paints. And there is, of course, Kinsey’s usual brand of humor: after acknowledging that Dietz had searched her apartment while staying with her, Kinsey adds,  “Neither of us had ever mentioned his invasion of my privacy, but I vowed I’d do likewise when the opportunity arose. Between working detectives, this is known as professional courtesy. You toss my place and I’ll toss yours” (p. 5).

Unfortunately, though, this novel suffers by comparison with its predecessor, “M” is for Malice, which I think is the best of the Kinsey Millhone series. After “M,” anything short of perfection must fail to satisfy. What particularly bothers me about “N” is for Noose is the denouement, in which Kinsey must decipher some information that Tom has written in code in his notebook. The problem is that this piece of information is something that no one—not even the methodical, strictly-by-the-book Tom—would have written down; he would just have kept the information in his head until he had figured out what to do about it.

However, even a slightly less than perfect book by Sue Grafton is still a darn good book. Admirers of Sue Grafton and Kinsey Millhone won’t be disappointed by “N” is for Noose.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“J” Is for Judgment by Sue Grafton

Grafton, Sue. “J” Is for Judgment (1993) 
Fawcett Crest, 360 pages, $6.99 paperback
ISBN 0 449 22148 2

A little over five years ago Wendell Jaffe disappeared from his sail boat, leaving behind a suicide note and a failed, fraudulent investment company. Jaffe also left behind a business partner who went to jail for fraud, a financially strapped wife, Dana, and two sons, ages 17 and 12 at the time of their father’s disappearance. Kinsey Millhone’s former employer, California Fidelity, issued a policy on Wendell Jaffe’s life but was reluctant to pay up without benefit of a body. Now that the required five years have elapsed, Dana Jaffe has had her husband declared legally dead, and CF has been forced to turn over the $500,000.

But the agent who sold Wendell Jaffe the life insurance policy insists that he has seen Jaffe at a small resort in Mexico. CF hires Kinsey to find out whether Wendell is really dead, a task that she jauntingly undertakes with liberal doses of her self-deprecating humor.

This novel differs from more traditional mysteries in that it raises more questions than it answers. Kinsey does finally settle the matter of whether CF must pay out Wendell Jaffe’s death benefit, but in the process she encounters disturbing questions about human nature, about peoples’ motivations and emotions.

And the most intriguing questions the novel raises are about Kinsey herself. While she’s questioning Dana Jaffe’s neighbors, a retired man whose hobby is researching family crests asks Kinsey if she’s related to the Burton Kinseys of Lompoc. As far as Kinsey knows she has no family, but the question nags at her.

Kinsey’s parents were both killed in an automobile accident on the road to Lompoc when Kinsey was 5 years old. She was raised by her maiden aunt, Aunt Ginny, her mother’s sister. Aunt Ginny, who died about 10 years before the time of this novel, never told Kinsey about any other family. But when Kinsey checks her parents’ marriage license application, she finds that Burton Kinsey is indeed her mother’s father.

A few days later a woman shows up at Kinsey’s office and identifies herself as Kinsey’s cousin Liza. She then proceeds to tell Kinsey the family story. Kinsey’s mother, Rita, the oldest of five sisters, was disowned by her wealthy parents when, at age 18, she married a 33-year-old mailman. Kinsey is stunned to learn that she has three more aunts, a bunch of cousins, and a grandmother (grandfather Burton having died within the last year) who have lived less than an hour’s drive away all of Kinsey’s life.

Kinsey’s cousins seem to expect her to welcome her newfound family with open arms, but Kinsey’s reaction is guarded. Now 34 years old, she wonders why no one ever got in touch with her before, particularly 10 years ago when Aunt Ginny died. “`I’ve made my peace with the fact that I’m alone. I like my life as it is, and I’m not at all sure I want to change’” (p. 285), Kinsey tells her cousin Tasha. And Kinsey ends her characteristic epilogue with the sentence “God knows I have questions about my own life to answer yet” (p. 360).

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Dead in the Water” by Stuart Woods

Woods, Stuart. Dead in the Water (1997)  
Harper Collins, 325 pages, $25.00 hardcover  
ISBN 0 06 018368 3

Stone Barrington arrives in St. Marks, a Caribbean island nation, where he has chartered a yacht for 10 days of sailing. But his live-in lover, Arrington Carter, is prevented from joining him, first by work obligations and then by a snowstorm that halts all flights out of New York City. Feeling sorry for himself, Stone is easily distracted when another yacht arrives in the marina with a single passenger aboard, a beautiful woman.

Stone soon learns that the woman is Allison Manning, wife of best-selling novelist Paul Manning. Allison and Paul were sailing around the world, but Allison reports that Paul died of a heart attack and she was forced to bury him at sea. Sir Winston Sutherland, the defense minister of St. Marks, has aspirations of becoming the country’s next prime minister. He sees a high-profile trial as just the thing to propel him on his way and proceeds to put Allison on trial for the murder of her husband.

Stone of course takes up the lady’s cause and signs on as the assistant to the only attorney on St. Marks who will dare to defend Allison, the ancient Sir Leslie Hewitt. As Stone begins to prepare a legal defense for Allison, he occasionally has doubts himself about her innocence—doubts that do not prevent him from continuing to defend her or to pursue her.

The vagaries of the legal system of the small island nation contribute significantly to the suspense of this novel. And along the way we meet a couple of the colorful minor characters that Stuart Woods is so good at creating: Thomas Hardy, the former New York City police officer who now runs a restaurant on his native island, and Sir Leslie Hewitt, the elderly rebel barrister who enjoys once again standing up to the abuse of authority.

Dead in the Water ends with a cliffhanger that suggests we may meet Stone Barrington again. Woods confirms this suggestion with the following author’s note: “Stone Barrington first made his appearance in New York Dead and came back for Dirt and now Dead in the Water. He will next appear in Swimming to Catalina, which will be published by HarperCollins in the spring of 1998.”

One aspect of Stuart Woods’s body of work that I originally found appealing is that each novel is independent. But now it looks as if Woods is becoming a series novelist. If he  had to develop a series, I’m not sure Stone Barrington is the best character to feature. (The supposedly Indian attorney in Santa Fe Rules would have been my choice.) However, Stone Barrington apparently fascinates Woods, who even apologizes for him in the author’s note at the end of Dead in the Water: “I apologize to those few readers who have complained about his sexual nature, but he doesn’t seem to be able to control himself.” Stone Barrington has apparently taken over Stuart Woods’s imagination, at least for the time being.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“In the Last Analysis” by Amanda Cross

Cross, Amanda. In the Last Analysis (1964) 
rpt. Avon Books, 176 pages, $5.50 paperback  
ISBN 0-380-54510-1

Carolyn G. Heilbrun, the reality behind the pseudonym Amanda Cross, was a professor at Columbia University in New York City. In Cross’s Kate Fansler mysteries I hoped to find books with a bit more substance than many current mysteries present. I figured the best place to start the series was at the beginning.

In the Last Analysis introduces Kate Fansler, an English professor an at unnamed university in New York City. One of Kate’s former students asks for a referral to a good psychiatrist. When the student is found murdered on the couch of the psychiatrist, Kate’s close friend Emanuel Bauer, suspicion falls on Emanuel, on his wife, and even on Kate herself.

As might be expected from an academic writer, there are numerous literary references in the book, such as Kate’s remark about Emanuel: “There are many things I don’t admire about Emanuel, but I feel about him as Emerson felt about Carlyle: ‘If genius were cheap,’ Emerson said, ‘we might do without Carlyle, but in the existing population he cannot be spared'” (p. 65). And again: “‘After all, life is full of coincidence, as Hardy knew, though none of us like to admit it'” (p. 115).

What I did not expect to find, though, is snobbish, class-conscious stereotyping: “the facts, if they were facts, on Emanuel’s side were not the sort the police, who must all have stanch lower-middle-class backgrounds, could understand” (p. 35).

An additional problem I had with this novel is understanding Kate Fansler’s age. From the facts given in the book about her life, it’s possible to estimate her age as somewhere between 30 and 35. Yet she SEEMS so much older than that; she thinks, talks, and acts like someone on the back side of middle age, even referring to current college students as “the younger generation.”

I was slightly disappointed with this book, but even more bewildered. I expected more consistent characterization, more substantive literary allusions, and a better mystery. 

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown