A little girl with red hair and a wide smile is discovered running around Central Park. She has blood on her shoulder. It fell from the sky she said, while she was looking for her Uncle, who turned into a tree. Poor child, people thought. And then they found a body in the tree.
For NYPD detective, Kathy Mallory, there is something about the little girl she understands. Mallory is damaged, they say, but she can tell a kindred spirit. And this one will lead her to a story of extraordinary crimes going back 15 years, with blackmail and complicity, not to mention a particular cruelty that someone only with Mallory's history could maybe recognise.
Prior to being given The Chalk Girl to read by my daughter, I had never read any of this author's work, but I discovered that detective Kathy Mallory also features in a number of other novels by Carol O'Connell. Indeed The Chalk Girl is actually the tenth 'Mallory' novel and was first published in 2012.
I wondered if it would have been best to read the other books featuring Mallory, before reading this one, but was told it didn't matter and I am pleased to report that since having read this book, I can confirm that you do not need to read the other nine books prior to this as story-wise it works well enough as a stand alone novel too.
The story begins in quite a dramatic way, with a large number of rats at large in Central Park and we are introduced to the little girl with the wide smile and red hair. Coco is her name she says and she is also very knowledgeable about rats too it seems.
Coco is an endearing little girl who has Williams Syndrome, a condition which means she is described as having 'elfin' features and includes a wide mouth with a large, slack bottom lip.
I must admit I had very little knowledge of Williams Syndrome prior to reading this book, but the author develops a character in Coco which is typical for a Williams child, not just in features but also in behaviours. For example high verbal ability and excessive talking, in an 'adult' manner, over-friendliness with strangers, a compulsion to talk to adults, while being unable to make friends with peers. An obsessional interest in certain things, ( in Coco's case this is rats) short attention span, over-reactions to things and hypersensitivity to noise.
Indeed the author has researched Coco's character very well and gives the reader a great insight into Williams Syndrome through her character and you find you cannot fail to warm to this charming little girl.
I found this quite an unusual book to read and it intrigued me as it seems most of the characters are damaged in some way. None more so than Kathy Mallory it seems and this is where I also found it irritating. Described as 'Sociopathic,' Mallory, as she is known as, is incapable of forming intimate human attachments and her character is very dificult to like. There is no doubt she has a great mind, but the fact she has just suddenly reappeared after taking off from her job suddenly and disappearing for three months (something which you are led to believe has happened before and is 'typical Mallory' ) got me wondering how on earth she could possibly by employed as a NYPD detective. No questions seem to be asked about her mysterious absence, her methods at times are unorthodox and she frustrates her colleagues and those around her. Straight away you are wondering just how she can be employed as a detective and how she has kept her job!
Her partner Riker, Charles Butler - the brilliant psychologist with a clown face and an obvious soft-spot for Mallory, police lieutenant Jack Coffey and chief medical examiner Edward Slope are like Mallory in that they have obviously been firmly established in past books, but again this does not make understanding this story difficult. The only thing I did find I was wondering, was that if I had read any other Mallory books or if the author had explained her background a little, would I be more sympathetic to her character here? I found although I could appreciate her intelligence, I could not actually like or enjoy her character throughout the story.
Getting back to the story, this is quite a complex tale which started off well enough and suitably intrigued me, but two thirds of the way through, I found my interest was beginning to wane. I felt it was being unnecessarily dragged out and and the story, which had seen me intrigued from the beginning, was now starting to irritate me. Maybe I prefer more fast-paced novels, but I did struggle to finish reading this book.
There is a thread of official corruption running throughout the story and by the final chapters I was feeling it all could have been wrapped up sooner. As the plot developed, sometimes it digressed into other incidents which I felt overly complicated the story. The book is so overlaid with this stuff it became tedious to read by the time I reached the final third. This story started off so promising and held my interest for two thirds of the book, then saw me feeling somewhat bored at times during the final chapters.
Coco's character, along with Charles and Riker, were the characters I enjoyed in this book. I got the feeling I was meant to adore Mallory, but instead I found sadly I could not.
Despite this, I am tempted to try and read another Mallory story, to see if my feelings change at all towards her, but I doubt I will rush out to get my hands on one.
Overall I am not sure whether to recommend this book or not. I feel that if you have read any of the other books featuring Kathy Mallory and enjoyed them, then you will like this one too and maybe you would have also built up a better understanding and appreciation of her character than I have.
I also feel that what started off as an intriguing tale ended up being let down by an over-complicated plot, but for the intrigue it held for a lot of the story and the characters I enjoyed other than Mallory, I would rate The Chalk Girl 3 out of 5.