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Just as San Francisco is essential to Armistead Maupin's Tales in the City books, New York City plays an integral part to the Mallory books. Detective Kathleen Mallory is one of New York's finest; however, she's brilliant, beautiful, and a sociopath. But usually on the legal side of the law.

Mallory's Oracle, by Carol O'Connell, Putnam (USA), 1994, 286 pages, ISBN 0-399-13975-3

The first book in the series. It begins with Detective Louis Markowitz, Mallory's father, being found dead at the scene of another murder. Markowitz had been investigating a serial killer, who preyed on wealthy elderly women who lived in Gramercy Park.

This book has the task of setting the beginning parameters of Mallory's world. There is Charles Butler, the very tall bue-blooded genius whom Markowitz posthumously asked to look after Mallory; the other three members of the Thursday night poker game, which include the medical examiner, a bigshot lawyer, and a rabbi; Sergeant Riker, the nearing burn out cop who drinks too much; and Lieutenant Jack Coffey, who dances a strange tango with Mallory as she weaves in and out of the law.

Mallory was a thief, a street kid who had been picked up by Markowitz while she was breaking into a Jaguar on his beloved wife Helen's birthday. He didn't want to stay late dealing with Juvenile Hall, so he took the 12 (really 10, Mallory lies well) year old home. Helen's reaction?

"But Helen didn't understand," said Slope, picking up his cards. "She thought Kathy was a present. She wouldn't let go of the kid for twelve years."
So Mallory the thief was raised by the gentle Helen and experienced cop Louis. Mallory's time on the streets and had damaged her, however, and while Helen was able teach Mallory table manners, the wild child within never died, only hid. She stopped stealing only because stealing made Helen cry. Mallory adored Helen, and grew to care for Louis.

She attended private schools, and started at Barnard. Regarding her career choice,

"I'm out." The rabbi put down his cards. "When she was twenty years old, Louis almost had a heart attack when she told him she was quitting college to enter the police academy."
The proximate crime in this first book is a serial killer of four elderly women, a subset of the rich elderly women in Gramercy Park. These are not your sweet grannies, though. For three of the victims, there are heirs to be closely scrutinized.

There are also seances, police politics, professional magicians, high society, an abused child and dog, insider trading, computers, the grit and grime of NYC.

I find the Mallory books interesting because of the progression. While Mallory is the nominal protagonist, as the series continues the books become more about her environment and secondary characters. I'm not knowledgeable about the mechanics of visual art, but Mallory seems to be the space around the figure which I've read is considered equally important; sometimes she has an active role in directing events, sometimes there are unintended consequences. In this first book she shows emotion very rarely, but still more often then in future books.

The Man Who Cast Two Shadows came next, where a corpse found is wrongly identified as Mallory, who then sets out to find the killer. This was followed by Killing Critics, which went into the New York theater world. I found this illuminating. One reason I enjoy mysteries is they provide an entre to situations I'll never see otherwise. Yes, they are fiction, but Broadway theater is in New York, whether reading an encyclopedia or a novel.

Shell Game followed, a look into the world of professional magicians. This had a slight foreshadowing in Mallory's Oracle, where it was learned Charles Butler's cousin Max was a famous magician.

In the fourth book, Stone Angel, Mallory's origin story is revealed. While I found it heartbreaking, there is a chunk of pure granite revealed at the end.

A standalone book, The Judas Child was next, before the series resumed.  

Crime School is where we learn more about Mallory's time as a street thief. A woman is hanged, but survives in a persistent vegetative state. She was Mallory's protection on the street until Markowitz snatched her. These books are not sweet. I find the writing intelligent.

The rest of the series so far has highlighted Riker in Dead Famous, while Charles Butler is always present.

******************

This is my first entry into book reviewing here. I'm sure you could tell. Any comments, tips, or reactions will be appreciated.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon Mar 12, 2012 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by lundi channel and Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter.

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