Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Powerful Storytelling of Carol O'Connell and Julia Keller

Last week I caught up with the latest crime fiction from Carol O'Connell, who lives in New York City and sets her Mallory novels there, and Julia Keller, a Chicago-oriented writer whose journalism career earned her a Pulitzer there and whose novels of Belfa "Bell" Elkins focus on small-town and rural life in West Virginia. The differences are huge; the similarity that matters to me is, I trust each of these authors to take me into a crime novel where I care passionately about the protagonist and her allies.

SORROW ROAD is Keller's fifth tale of Bell Elkins, the prosecuting attorney in Acker's Gap, West Virgina. The book opens with a tip of the hat to the issue that has nearly destroyed Bell's life in the preceding books: substance abuse, especially of prescription medication, and what horrible things people do to others and themselves to feed the habit or gain the incredible profits involved. Bell's marriage is long gone; her sister, now out of jail, doesn't even phone her in this season; and most painfully of all, her grown daughter chose to leave her and live in Washington, DC, while at the same time Bell's forced a gap into her relationship with the younger man who's become important to her ability to love herself.

But of course, things are tougher than that -- questionable deaths at a nursing home in the next county become Bell's moral burden when a long-time woman friend of hers dies in the midst of probing the deaths. And Bell's daughter, caught up in a wicked case of PTSD with flashbacks, is in trouble. And, to make everything harder, the region's being pounded by high-snow-total storms.

Really good crime fiction has at least a double mystery to it -- the kind that means sorting out the crime in order to bring justice, and the deeper one that bonds readers to characters, the risky business of trying to be both strong and sane in a world that often punishes people -- especially women -- who embrace that road. Keller's West Virginia novels take Bell fiercely into that double firefight. Well worth reading ... and very satisfying. If you can make time for it, start with the first in the series, A Killing in the Hills, because the force of one book on top of the next will enrich SORROW ROAD when you get to it. If you're going into this newest title cold, though, you'll still get a very good read; you just may wonder why the rest of us like Bell enough to let her pull some of what she's up to in this one.

Carol O'Connell is one of the rare series novelists who doesn't promise a book per year -- her Mallory series comes with enough pain that I can picture the author insisting on her own timeline, to make room for recovery between drafts. Kathy Mallory was an abandoned street child/pickpocket adopted by a Manhattan police detective and his warm-hearted wife; BLIND SIGHT steps into a powerful season in her life, when her own police detective career is thriving (also very hard on her superiors) and her allies see her clearly. What they see, and what readers can access, is a brilliant detective who is driven, meticulous, wickedly humorous in her own dry way, and who refuses to socialize in normal ways -- in fact, probably she really can't. Her personality works well for the determined pursuit of a twisted criminal here, as both a blind boy and a nun in a monastic order vanish from the city streets on the same day, and turn out to be related to each other. It's up to Mallory to figure out whether there's a kidnap-and-ransom aspect involved, who's being forced to pay, and how ... while also racing the close in an effort to force the detectives around her to grapple with the investigation her way.

Years ago, I tagged Mallory as a fictional precursor to Lisbeth Salander of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In terms of personality, there are strong parallels -- both women are brilliant, tech-minded, and emotionally closed off due to past extreme trauma. A third parallel could be Vanessa Michael Munroe, the outwardly androgenous investigator provided by series author Taylor Stevens. All three women ignore social rules when they need to, all three can hack a hard drive overnight, and all three commit criminal acts in the process of bringing justice to criminal situations. And it would be easy to slap a label like sociopaths onto them, because of the violence they seem to not regret.

Yet a recent letter to readers from Taylor Stevens firmly made the cogent point that her protagonist -- and, I think, the others I've just mentioned -- lives far differently from the lack of empathy that a psychopath (and perhaps sociopath, depending on whether you see them as similar) displays. In short, Munroe gets done what needs to be done, and since nobody else can keep up with her, she does it in the best way she can -- while accruing a cost, enlarging her own preexisting wound.

That's certainly the case for Lisbeth Salander. But the biggest surprise twist of BLIND SIGHT from O'Connell is the possibility that Mallory's network and her own choices may lead her in a new direction: away from further pain, and perhaps toward some sort of inner justice and balance at last.


And that's part of why every Mallory novel is worth reading -- for the empathy that works its jagged way through O'Connell's edgy narrative style, and the sense that something in the world might end up less wrong and more right than before.

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