editor's choice



‘Detective Mallory just called. She shut down the play.’…

Axel Clayborne scanned his new lines. ‘Did she say why?’

‘Bad behavior,’ said Cyril. ‘Too many dead bodies in the audience.’

The actor nodded. ‘I suppose last night was overkill.’

It Happens in the Dark, p. 120


Modern crime fiction is a wondrous thing. The world is simply a far safer place with characters like Kurt Wallander, Vera Stanhope, Kay Scarpetta, Guido Brunetti, Tony Hill and Temperance Brennan solving crimes all over the world. Imagine what they could do together?

In my opinion though, New York detective Kathy Mallory, the protagonist of 11 of Carol O’Connell‘s brilliant books, stands out in the crowd. In fact I’d go so far as to say she’s one of the best inventions in American crime fiction in recent times. Kathy, or ‘Mallory’ as she prefers to be known, is the ultimate anti-heroine – disfunctional, amoral, coldly brilliant and fiercely manipulative – yet, she is strangely likeable. We root for her, although precisely what we’re rooting for, I’m not quite sure. In this latest Mallory novel, It Happens in the Dark, fact and fiction merge as Mallory tries to find the reason behind some rather perplexing deaths, possibly murder, possibly accidents, plaguing a New York Theater District production. She is aided, as ever, by her old faithfuls Riker and Charles Butler and her team of detectives.

Since her first appearance, in Mallory’s Oracle (1994), Mallory has dazzled readers – and it’s not because of her much-noted green-eyed, blonde, willowy beauty, which brings to mind, for me at least, a 21st-century Veronica Lake in huge sunglasses. Mallory is just extraordinary. There’s no other way to put it. She is able to do things that other people can’t. She knows things that other people don’t – and she has the ability to use silence as a weapon, in a manner far more lethal than the very impressive gun that she totes.

As a character, Mallory embodies many of the qualities of those heroes from old black-and-white westerns, the silent strangers who ride into some troubled backwater town, save the day, while creating a lot of havoc admittedly, and then ride out again, leaving the townspeople none the wiser as to their identity or why they’ve acted as they have. That’s possibly why Mallory appeals to me so much as a character. I pick up a Mallory title and know that she’s going to wade through all the intricate lies and deceptions, in a place where nothing is but what is not, and I am certain that one way or another she’ll get her man (or woman).

That said, the Mallory books aren’t easy or pleasant reads. They’re challenging, often terrifying novels. O’Connell relentlessly and repeatedly creates a world that’s a chillingly, scary place, full of people capable of doing the most hellish things, often just because they can. Mallory moves through this world with ease, possibly because at one point in her mysterious childhood, she inhabited it before she was ‘saved’ by her police foster father and his wife. And it’s her late foster father’s poker-playing friends who now act collectively as Mallory’s moral compass, stepping in to make sure that each time she leaps off into the abyss, she doesn’t get left behind in the darkness.

It Happens in the Dark is, in many ways, a typical Mallory book. Its plot is intricate with real life echoing a fictional work that’s actually based on real events. It’s left to Mallory, with Riker and Charles Butler’s help, to untangle the web of lies and discover what is real and what’s fiction. Pretty much every character has a secret or has changed his or her identity and it’s a nod to O’Connell’s skill as a writer that we, as the reader, don’t get left behind in all the plot twists and devices.

The only thing I would say is if you like the type of crime fiction in which the hero/heroine solves the crime and everyone lives happily ever after, the O’Connell books are not for you. Without a doubt, Mallory makes sure that justice is served, even if it’s not necessarily in the most morally acceptable way, but the reader isn’t left with a feeling that all is right in the world. The Mallory titles are painful. And, while the crime might be solved and the right people punished in some way, at the end of each book we’re still left with the lasting impression that the survivors are somehow stranded in their own grief, trying to make sense of a world that has imploded, devastating them.


It Happens in the Dark by Carol O’Connell. Published by Headline and Berkley, 2013


Suggested soundtracks:The Big Sleep’, Max Steiner; The Big Heat, Why Can’t You Behave?;


Suggested food: Mallory is a machine: she doesn’t eat.


Also of interest:The not-so-invisible woman‘; ‘Beauty in Translation – Roxanne Bouchard’s Canadian noir’; ‘Finlay’s last stand – Matt Johnson’s End Game‘; ‘We should all be feminists‘; ‘Force of Nature–aka where’s Alice Russell?‘; ‘Jane Harper’s stylish debut – The Dry‘; ‘Mallory an old-style hero – It Happens in the Dark by Carol O’Connell’; ‘The long road – John Fairfax’s Summary Justice‘; ‘Nora Roberts’ Come Sundown – a tale of strong women‘; How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original Penguin Ten‘; ‘Book covers we love – Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday‘.



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