Shell Game,

by Carol O'Connell

Carol O'Connell is a phenomenon. After establishing herself in a brilliant three-novel series as an authentic voice of New York, less gritty than Andrew Vachss but no less powerful, hard-eyed, and fierce, she moved Kathleen Mallory to Louisiana, searching for her past, and wrote her into a book as Cajun Gothic as James Lee Burke's worst nightmare. Then, in case we weren't impressed, she abandoned Mallory briefly to create Ali Cray and Rouge Kendall, the central figures of Judas Child (a book heralded with the ominous admission that it was "not a Kathleen Mallory novel"), and left us as eager for more of them as we were for another Mallory novel. Now, Mallory is back, which is a bit of a surprise, given the obvious completedness of the four books that told her story, in O'Connell's newest novel, Shell Game.

Mallory is a protagonist so wonderfully dimensioned that we are carried from one novel to the next by the desire to know and understand her. Beautiful as a Hollywood star, larger than lifesize (she's 6'1"), bright and talented, she is psychologically damaged and scarred almost beyond imagining. An orphaned street kid who survived on the nourishment of ferocity, cunning, and forlorn hope, she is captured and adopted by Helen and Louis Markowitz, a homicide detective and his wife, central figures of all the novels in spite of the fact that both are dead before the books begin. As the series unfolds, the mystery of Mallory's background emerges until finally, in Stone Angel, the death of her mother is the mystery she must solve.

A great deal of the attraction is the intertwining lives of the cast of Mallory's friends, colleagues, and enemies. Charles Butler, who inherited Kathleen (and a seat at a poker game) when Louis Markowitz died, is the continuing love-interest, though we can barely imagine Mallory ever returning his affection. She works with the standard partner/foil, in this case the rumpled Sergeant Riker, an aging alcoholic who did 'midget duty' for Markowitz when she was ten and now, her partner, tries to keep Mallory safe and help her outgrow her terrible past. You never know who will matter. We hear in each novel a bit more about Charles' uncle, a famous magician. Another magician, Malakhai, plays a central role offstage in The Man Who Cast Two Shadows. In Shell Game he emerges as a foreground character and the prime suspect in a murder.

Nearing the last fifty pages of Shell Game, I found myself thinking it was Ok, but a bit disappointing. Then the execution of the killer of Louisa began and we were there again, in that special place Carol O'Connell describes so well, the shadow country between our world and Mallory's. O'Connell weaves a wonderful tapestry of interconnected themes and events in these books. The manner of the execution echoes the gutting of Loius Markowitz, the murder that commences the first novel, Mallory's Oracle. And Mallory's response to the crime reminds us of her reenactment of the murders of Aubry Gilette and Peter Ariel, in Killing Critics, when she was struck with the unfamiliar emotion of empathy.

It's not unusual to be disappointed in what appear to be 'second thought' sequels. The story of Kathleen Mallory concluded with Stone Angel. One must enter the fifth novel with some apprehension: Is there really anything more we need to know about Mallory, her friends, the continuing characters? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Although he is less in the foreground than he was in Stone Angel, Charles grows in this book, as dramatically as in the last. His final scene is appropriate and totally unexpected. We also see more complexities of Coffey, Slope, and Riker. There are no revelations as startling as the conversations with Father Brenner in Killing Critics, but we learn more about Kathy's childhood and Helen. O'Connell treats her favorite characters with respect and intelligence. We will probably never learn anything about Riker as affecting as our glimpse into his personal life in Killing Critics, but he continues to develop in Shell Game. He begins here to take a strong, active role in bringing Mallory back to the human race, the central theme of this book.

The story of Malakhai and the dead Louisa has been hovering in the background like a smudge on the horizon — cloud? distant smoke? — since The Man Who Cast Two Shadows, where magic first takes center stage in the series. Shell Game, despite its strangely trivial beginnings, becomes, once he arrives on the scene, an interesting exploration of the depths of Mallory's alienation. And the end is as harrowing as descent to Hell as anyone deserves. What a terrible way to discover you have a soul. Kathy grows. I was reminded of my son, at six, waking up screaming when his bones grew too fast in the night.

The plot here, tangling the death of a magician in a botched escape trick in Central Park, two strangely comic humiliations of Mallory, and a maze of deception and misdirection dating back to the death of Malakhai's wife Louisa in WWII France, sometimes brings us to a thudding halt like the mazes it resembles. But the handful of magicians implicated in Louisa's death are sufficiently differentiated that things pick up again quickly, and the twists and reversals at the end puzzle and fascinate.

No, not the best Mallory novel. Killing Critics still holds pride of place with me. But a good one, with something for the O'Connell fan and a good mystery, twisted and bent as O'Connell always does so well, for the neophyte just discovering the Mallory books. Better than the Harris garbage on the bestseller lists? Of course. How sad, the critics drooling over celebrities like Harris, when real writers often can't even get reviewed.

Be warned – British Titles
O'Connell's writing career began with a British publisher, and her novels have a busy life in UK editions. However, many of the titles are different there. Amazon will occasionally list a UK title without explanation. For example, there's a "new title" called Shark Music. It's just the UK edition of Find Me. Here's a list of UK titles with US equivalents.

British TitleU.S. Title
Mallory's Oraclesame
The Man Who Lied to WomenThe Man with Two Shadows
Killing Criticssame
Flight of the Stone AngelStone Angel
Judas Childsame
Magic MenShell Game
Crime Schoolsame
The Jury Must DieDead Famous
Winter Housesame
Shark MusicFind Me

Buy Shell Game at Hardcover
Read an annotated bibliography of Carol O'Connell's other novels, or reviews of Crime School, Dead Famous, Winter House, and Find Me.

In Association with

Shop at the Dancing Badger Amazon store for more great books.

Top Dancing Badger Home Book Reviews [mainly]

Go to Powell's Books
Search for out-of-print Carol O'Connell titles
at Powells, your best used book resource.