BY CAROL O’CONNELL
In 1994, after my first book was published, I received a fan letter and a great deal of religious material from a woman who wanted to save me from eternal damnation. That was when I realized that I was onto something with my protagonist, who is an officer of the NYPD, a woman, and a sociopath. Call her Detective Mallory or just plain Mallory, neither Miss nor Ms., but never call her Kathy. She likes that chilly distance of the surname.
Aloof? Perhaps. In Stone Angel, she is likened to a cat:
The cat hissed and arched its back as Charles’s hand moved toward the sugar bowl. Apparently, he had violated some house rule of table manners. Slowly, his hand withdrew from the bowl and came to rest on the table by his cup. The cat lay down, stretching her lean body across the checkered cloth, and the tail ceased to switch and beat the wood. When his hand moved again, she bunched her muscles, set to spring, relaxing only while his hand was still. The cat controlled him.
Now who did that remind him of?
The old woman was back at the table. “Don’t touch that cat. She doesn’t like people-barely tolerates them. She’s wild-raised in the woods. When I found her, she was too set in her ways to ever be anybody’s idea of tame. She had buckshot all through her pelt and chicken feathers in her mouth. Now that told me, right off, that she was a thief. And she is perversity incarnate. Sometimes she purrs just before she strikes.
Charles nodded while the woman spoke, and he ticked off the familiar character flaws as she listed them. Now he peered into the cat’s slanted eyes. Mallory, are you in there?
Miss Trebec bent down to speak to the cat, to explain politely that an animal did not belong on the table when company was calling. The cat seemed to be considering this information, but she left the table in her own time, as though it were her own idea. The tail waved high as she disappeared over the edge.
It was disconcerting that the animal made no sound when she hit the floor. It crossed his mind to look under the table, to reassure himself that the cat did not float there, waiting to catch him in some new breach of etiquette. Instead he peered into his cup as he stirred the sugar in his coffee. When he looked up to ask his hostess a question, the cat was riding the woman’s shoulders.
(And, after wading through all of that, here is your punch line: A passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses inspired Mallory and best defines her in only eleven genius words. Mr. Joyce wrote, “Cruel. Her nature. Curious mice never squeal. Seem to like it.”)
However, like a cat, Mallory seems to have no affinity for these animals. In Dead Famous she had an encounter with New York City ’s only attack cat, a pathetic creature with nerve damage. When he’s in pain, he lashes out at strangers, and this earned him the name Huggermugger, Mugs for short. He was softly creeping up behind Mallory when a tiny squeak of excitement gave him away. Then he paused as their eyes met, and they mutually agreed that she could kill him any time she liked. Mugs, wise cat, retreated to his basket.
I am nothing like my protagonist. Consequently, I am, in person, a huge disappointment to everyone who expects her and gets me. Mallory is tall, I’m short; she’s blond, I’m not; she carries a gun, and I don’t. Yet every time I lecture, someone will ask, “Is Mallory autobiographical?” I’m always stunned, but I never harm these people. I say, “No. Mallory is a sociopath, and I’m a nice person… I’m a relatively nice person.” Given that proviso, people generally do not push their luck with the question.
I blame this on the Germans.
When I arrived in Berlin on tour with my first book, I was told that a local journalist had written an article that mistook Mallory’s Oracle for a rather strange third-person memoir. In every interview, and there were many, I set the reporters straight. Mallory was a work of pure fiction, I said, “Not me. Nothing like me. I’m a wimp.” But they preferred the earlier, erroneous version of me, and my correction never appeared in any of their newspaper interviews. To this day, many German people believe that I’m a tall blonde with disturbing defects.
So where did the fleshed-out Mallory come from? Well, in the usual order of things, she began as a little sociopath. The detective’s introduction to the NYPD came at a tender age.
The haunt of Grand Central Station was a small girl with matted hair and dirty clothes. She appeared only in the commuter hours, morning and evening, when the child believed that she could go invisibly among the throng of travelers in crisscrossing foot traffic, as if that incredible face could go anywhere without attracting stares. Concessionaires reached for their phones to call the number on a policeman’s card and say, “She’s back.”
The girl always stood beneath the great arch, pinning her hopes on a tip from a panhandler: Everyone in the world would pass by-so said the smelly old bum-if she could only wait long enough. The child patiently stared into a thousand faces, waiting for a man she had never met. She was certain to know him by his eyes, the same rare color as her own, and he would recognize Kathy’s face as a small copy of her mother’s. Her father would be so happy to see her; this belief was unshakable, for she was a little zealot in the faith of the bastard child.
He never came. Months passed by. She never learned.
Toward the close of this day, the child had a tired, hungry look about her. Hands clenched into fists, she raged against the panhandler, whose fairy tale had trapped her here in the long wait.
At the top of the rush hour, she spotted a familiar face, but it was the wrong one. The fat detective was seen in thin slices between the bodies of travelers. Though he was on the far side of the mezzanine, Kathy fancied that she could hear him huffing and wheezing as he ran toward her. And she waited.
One second, two seconds, three.
When he came within grabbing distance, the game was on-all that passed for sport in the life of a homeless child. She ran for the grand staircase, shooting past him and making the fat man spin. Sneakers streaking, slapping stone, the little blond bullet in blue jeans gained the stairs, feet flying, only alighting on every third step.
At the top of the stairs, she turned around to see that the chase was done-and so early this time. Her pursuer had reached the bottom step and could not climb another. The fat man was in some pain and out of breath. One hand went to his chest, as if he could stop a heart attack that way.
The little girl mouthed the words, Die, old man.
They locked eyes. His were pleading, hers were hard. And she gave him her famous Gothcha smile.
One day, she would become his prisoner-but not today-and Louis Markowitz would become her foster father. Years later and long after they had learned to care for one another, each time Kathy Mallory gave him this smile, he would check his back pocket to see if his wallet was missing.
So… obviously not one of the more charming sociopaths, the detective rarely feels the need to show her badge in order to gain respect-even in a truck stop:
Mallory carried her tray to the most remote table, aware that all the truck drivers were smiling her way. Their conversations had stopped, and now they stripped her naked with their eyes. They were so fearless in their sense of entitlement-as if they were ticket holders to a strolling peep show. Oh, if eyes could only whoop and holler. She set her knapsack on the table, then removed her denim jacket and draped it over the back of a chair.
“Oh, Lord,” said a passing waitress.
Sans jacket, Mallory displayed a shoulder holster and a.357 Smith & Wesson revolver. With the tight unison of chorus girls, the men turned their faces downward, as if finding their plates infinitely more fascinating.
Only the waitress seemed to take the gun in stride, shaking her head, as if the lethal weapon might be some minor violation of a dress code.
This gambit has also proved useful in finding parking spaces anywhere in Manhattan and for upgrading hotel rooms elsewhere.
The denim jacket is not part of her usual wardrobe. Shopping at the Gap is Mallory’s idea of going in disguise. On a normal workday, she dresses well beyond the paycheck of a civil servant. In her partner’s opinion, she delights in leaving the impression that she might be a cop on the take. (This passes for a sense of humor in Mallory’s world.) A well-respected art critic once took notice of her outfit.
Though Mr. Quinn could not see the back pocket of her jeans, he knew a designer’s name would be embroidered there. A long black trenchcoat was draped over the shoulders of her blazer, which was cashmere, and her T-shirt was silk. He would have bet his stock portfolio that her curls were styled in a Fifty-seventh Street salon, but not dyed there, for this was that most unusual creature, a natural blonde. In every other aspect of her, a lifetime’s experience in stereotyping had failed him. He could not hazard her occupation or her exact status in the world. And then, as she drew closer, he realized that, if it was true that one could read another’s soul by the eyes-this young woman didn’t have one.
So, she gets on well with truck drivers and art critics, but she is not overly sentimental about children or puppy dogs. And frail little old ladies should never get between Mallory and a case. This is best illustrated with a grand dame of the New York ballet who mistook the young detective for a prospective student of the dance. Madame Burnstien was small and slight, hardly threatening. Her white hair was captured in a bun, and every bit of skin was a crisscross of lines. The only hand visible through the crack of the door was a cluster of arthritic knots wrapped round the cane.
“I’m Mallory. I have an appointment with you.”
“You are Rabbi Kaplan’s young friend?”
Mallory could not immediately place the woman’s accent, but then Anna Kaplan had said that Madame Burnstien hailed from too many countries to call one of them home. In youth, she had danced for the whole earth. Mallory could not believe this crone had ever been young.
“Rabbi Kaplan said you would see me.”
“I said I would look at you, and I have. You’re a beautiful child, but too tall. Go away now.”
The door began to close. Mallory shot one running shoe into the space between the door and its frame. The old woman smiled wickedly and showed Mallory her cane, lifting it in the crack-width to display the carved wolf’s head and its fangs.
“Move your foot, my dear, or you’ll never dance again.”
The cane was rising for a strike.
“Madame Burnstien, you only think I won’t deck you.”
The old eyes widened and gleamed. The smile disappeared and her brows rushed together in an angry scowl as the cane lowered slowly. There was exaggerated petulance in her cracking voice. “I like determination, child, but you waste my time. You’re still too tall.”
“Everybody’s a critic.” Mallory showed her the gold badge and ID. “I want to talk to you about Aubry Gilette.”
“I have many students. Aubry was a thousand dancers ago. What do you expect me to remember about one girl?”
“Oh, I think you remember her better than most. Don’t make me show the autopsy photo. You’re old. It’d probably kill you.”
And she has a grudge against nuns. Well, one nun. Mallory takes great pride in her enemies, and she is particularly proud of Sister Ursula. One night, she interrupted a poker game to ask a case-related question on religion. And here Rabbi David Kaplan points out that she has better sources for Roman Catholic dogma:
“Kathy, as I recall, you had four years of a very expensive Catholic school education. Go and ask Father Brenner. He’s semi-retired now, but I believe he’s filling in the vacation schedule at St. Jude’s this week.”
“Father Brenner and I aren’t exactly on friendly terms. Maybe you could ask him.”
“It’s been what, maybe ten years now? He’s not one to hold a grudge. It’s not as if you broke that nun’s leg.”
After Mallory left the room, the other poker players fixed upon the face of the rabbi in dead silence. He cast his sweet smile on each player in turn, which was easy because he was holding the best cards of the evening. But he never said another word about Kathy Mallory and the nun, not even when they withheld his sandwiches and beer for a time. He would not talk.
Why do people like this character? I don’t know. If I had to guess, I’d say it harks back to old high school issues of making the cut, and this idea works well on both sides of the gender divide. Let’s say that it was possible for you to meet her on the street or in a bar. Would Mallory talk to you? Would you even register as a solid object, or would she look through you? These are trick questions and very Darwinian in the sense of good survival instincts. Being ignored is actually your best possible outcome. If she’s interested, if she hurts you, then you’ve made the cut.
There are always questions about why she is the way she is. Well-intentioned (albeit delusional) fans long to pin down the exact moment in time when her mind went awry-so they can tweak her and fix her and ruin my career. More rational readers want me to do the mending. The nicest people ask (beg) for a kinder, gentler Mallory. I politely explain that if I give them what they ask for, I have no book. I’d like to say, “This is crime genre and not a damn soap opera.” (In person, I am polite. On the page-not so much.) Each novel was written to stand alone, and reading one out of order will in no way ruin the plot of any other book in the Mallory series-so you won’t be charting warm and fuzzy life-affirming changes in the character. However, gaining personal insight here and there creates the illusion of growth in a sociopath who cannot change what she is.
She has a partner named Riker, who keeps a very special rainy-day bullet in the nightstand by his bed, and he sometimes thinks of loading it into his gun. But he never speaks of this. There are no overt signs of his state of mind. And Mallory should be the last person on earth to intuit his suicidal ideation. And yet, there are nights when she parks her car in front of his apartment building and looks up toward the bathroom window and the glow of Riker’s plastic Jesus nightlight. When every light but this one has gone out, she drives away.
Perhaps her only clue to Riker’s sadness is in the chaos that he calls home. It’s best described by a character who once said to him, “You know why you don’t have cockroaches? Those genius bugs-they know it’s not safe to eat here.” Mallory, that neat freak who straightens pictures on other people’s walls, once broke into Riker’s apartment and cleaned it for him. She dragged her mop and bucket from room to room, stopping on the threshold of the bathroom, where exquisite good taste kicked in, and she wanted to trash that plastic Jesus nightlight. Instead she cleaned it and left it shining so that Riker would not stumble and fall in the dark.
So what’s in a name when it comes to dangerous pathology?
The pigeonholes that we make for people like Mallory are only for convenience’s sake. We are all special cases. I am sometimes asked, “How does a sociopath differ from a psychopath?” (Here you have to bear in mind that we live in an era of broadcast news that uses authors of techno-thrillers as weaponry experts to explain what’s going on in an actual war. And they have other fiction writers on standby if there’s a plague coming.) So I respond to the question from my audience. (What the hell. I can’t do worse than the amateur expert who sent America to the hardware store one day with the promise that duct tape would protect us from nuclear radiation.) I usually preface my remarks by warning people that the quacks on their favorite television shows cannot agree on this point of mental aberration. However, real doctors seem to have a consensus in their professional journals, which, alas, lack the credibility of the bestseller list.
It appears that there is no longer any distinction made between a sociopath and a psychopath. Based on research, I can tell you that those terms are used interchangeably in academic literature. And a quote from one psychologist of my acquaintance sums up modern policy on this matter: “Today’s sociopath is yesterday’s psychopath.” Putting rational thought to one side for the moment, common usage of these particular words carries more weight with the general public: Many people, with and without television credentials, see a sociopath as someone who can shoot a baby in the head and sleep through the night, and a psychopath as someone who can eat the face off a baby and sleep through the night.
Go with whatever definition makes you the most uncomfortable.
For some readers, Mallory is entirely too real. But I find that letters from mental patients are frequently the most insightful, and I welcome them. In my view, madness is a place. You go. You come back. And I think we all take turns being the mental patient. Without a touch of crazy, literature can be a desolate place. In the current climate of careful speech, even fearful speech, smoke-free film scripts, thought-free songs, and child-proof locks on American minds, the oft-repeated lament of the arts is “Where have all those wonderful madmen gone?”
The strong (and defective) character of Mallory may be what people remember best about these books. However, in a book where character is everything, you have nothing but an essay with no legs. The plot is the animation that runs you at gunpoint from cover to cover, sometimes at a heart-attack pace, a race to the end; and sometimes the plot is crawling, dragging its nails in the dark, coming up behind you… and then… at the end, you should be startled, and your next reaction should be “Oh, of course.”
Most important, the plot has to work with the protagonist. You will sometimes hear the literati say that they have no control over their characters, and they frequently alter a book because their protagonist would never do a thing like that. This should not happen in the crime genre, where there are promises to keep. The author must be in control of the material; this is the appeal, the draw, and the covenant with the reader. You should not be subjected to a thousand pages of angst, boring descriptions of the wallpaper, and the added misery of watching the protagonist boil eggs for breakfast. Instead, you are entitled to a sleek plot that will carry you somewhere, a plot with fangs and moving parts, a beginning, a middle, and a solid resolution.
I promise to tell you a story.
Ideally, the setting of every story should be a place that you can inhabit for the duration of a novel, and Manhattan, which figures prominently in most of my books, takes on character status. So this is not the dreaded scenery description; it’s character development, and I always aim to make it painless:
Riker’s binoculars strayed to the surrounding buildings and then down below to the stream of late traffic. Ah, New York, all decked out in city lights like sequins on her best dress-all dazzle and smart moves. He had seen the city in harsher light, and he knew she was really a whore, but that could be fun, too.
Stone Angel was a departure, a foray into southern gothic and a different kind of setting, a place where nature is no small player and every living thing is running for its life or running for its supper:
One osprey flopped its catch onto the grass. The fish struggled under the bird’s talons; its silver scales were striped with watery blood. The fish hawk was so intent on tearing flesh from bone, he paid the woman no mind as she drew closer, smiling benignly on the creature and his bloody living meal, nodding her approval of a good catch.
If reincarnated, Augusta knew she could depend on coming back to the earth with feathers, for she had the ruthless makings of a fine bird, and God was not one to waste talent.
And once I took Mallory on the road-the Mother Road:
The two homicide detectives were soaked through and through. They surrendered, throwing up their hands and then jamming them into coat pockets. Grim and helpless, they watched the heavy rain come down on their forensic evidence and carry it away. There it went, the body fluids, stray hairs and fibers, all flowing off down the gutter. The corpse, washed clean, could tell them nothing beyond the cause of death-extreme cruelty. There had never been a crime scene quite like this one in the history of Chicago, Illinois, nothing as shocking, nothing as sad.
The religious detective made the sign of the cross. The other one closed his eyes.
The dead man at their feet was pointing the way down Adams Street, also known as Route 66, a road of many names. Steinbeck had called it a road of flight.
When strangers on a train or a plane ask what I do for a living, I say, “I kill people.” This response makes for a short conversation, no eye contact, and no sudden movement by my seatmate, only peace and quiet.
Rare is the fellow passenger who asks why I do it.
I suppose I got tired of hanging out in a book all day long waiting for a story to begin. I write the kind of novels I want to read. And why the theme of solving murders? Violent death is larger than life. And it’s the great equalizer. By law, every victim is entitled to a paladin and a chase, else life would be cheapened.
And the real reason I do this? My brain is simply bent this way. There is nothing else I would rather do. This neatly chains into my theory of the writing life: If you scratch an artist, under the skin you will find a bum who cannot hold down a real job. Conversely, if you scratch a bum… But I have never done that. (The heart of my theory has Puritan roots: If you love what you do, you cannot call it honest work.)
I love a mystery. And I loathe lectures.
Characters may have their independent issues, but nothing overshadows the death of a human being. I write crime novels, not morality plays-no soapboxes, no scolding. If you fail to wash your aluminum foil before recycling it, I am not gunning for you. If you smoke, I don’t care. If you drink too much, I wasn’t born to save you by burying a twelve-step program in the chapters. Also, I have no desire to suck all the charm out of your life by adding more green leafy vegetables to your diet. And political correctness has no place in my work.
Mallory never deals with any feminist issues. She doesn’t have to. It would not occur to most people, while facing a woman with a loaded gun, to suggest that she might be happier barefoot and pregnant. That’s an image of her that never comes to mind on any page of these books. There are no diatribes on bigotry of any kind, which can only come as a relief to people who are really, really tired of being told how it feels to be them. I envision a great dump site filled with broken lamps, the casualties of books being hurled across a room and missing the target of the open window.
Do you walk with a cane or roll in a chair? I don’t care.
Because the handicapped populate my city, they are sometimes major players or peripheral characters in my books. (Do I go gently with them? Yeah, right.) Informed by observation, I say the halt, the lame, and the blind have the same percentage of ignoble people among them as can be found in the general population. And I never received any hate mail about that poor sightless bastard from Killing Critics who had a dead fly pitched into his drink. (Mallory did it. But he had it coming. This was retribution for an unkind remark to a friend of hers.)
Just before he took a sip…
The small group surrounding the blind man wondered, each one of them, if it might be rude or worse, politically incorrect, to mention the dead bug in his wineglass. Wouldn’t that call attention to his blindness?
Ah, too late.
(One small deviation on the subject of special-interest politics: As a concession to animal-rights activists, no actual house pets are killed or injured in the creation of these novels.)
A copyeditor once wrote a sweet note on a Post-it and stuck it to the last page of my manuscript. She thanked me for merely wounding a pet this time and not killing it outright. Apparently, I can murder all the people I like. No one minds that. But the first time an animal died (on the first page of my first book), it generated anxious mail.
The dog circled the chair, fear rising up to a human crying. He moved her hand with his nose. Nothing. The hand fell limply to her lap.
The dog wailed.
The dog’s mind was breaking. Regimentation instilled by pain was falling apart. He was departing from ritual, backing out of the room, terrified eyes fixed on the woman till he was clear of the kitchen. Now he turned and flung himself into the next room, racing across the carpet, passing through the open door and down the long hallway, paws touching lightly to ground in the perfect poetry of a beautiful animal in motion, muscles elongating and contracting, eyes shining with purpose. Now springing, rising, flying, crashing through the glass of the fifth-floor window.
Vermin have no fan base-only dogs and cats do-and a lot of fictional rats had to die so that I could bring you that bit of trivia.
I don’t go out of my way to upset social watchdogs. Without even trying, I was once bumped from an interview on a radio show noted for political correctness. (I don’t name names. Don’t ask. I slaughter a great many fictional people. In real life, my bloodletting pales.) The radio host objected to the first acts of murder in Killing Critics, a double homicide. “Gratuitous violence,” he said. Evidently, the person who read the book for him failed to explain the context of the New York art scene, where topping the over-the-top is no small feat. The victims were displayed as works of sculpture. Their objectionable murder (on the charitable assumption that there is another kind) occurred years before the book began and was first disclosed by Detective Mallory’s reconstruction of the event in a bare room-no weapons, no bodies, and no blood on the floor, only dust. (Yet this was too much for him to bear. If he had only put that in writing, I would have included it among the book jacket reviews for the next edition.)
I don’t do anything gratuitously. Well, yeah, once I did throw an unnecessary pigeon into a scene with an unbalanced character:
They advanced across the flat stones, quick jerking shapes of light and dark, and some were spotted with brown and gray, uniform only in their forward motion, and one of them was insane.
Feet of red and red rings around the bright mad eyes, he was otherwise coal black until he passed into a dapple of sun, and iridescent flecks of green shimmered in the light. The feathers of his head were not smoothed back and rounded. Spiky they were, and dirty, as though a great fear had put them that way, and the fear had lasted such a long time, a season or more, and the dirt of no bathing or rain had pomaded them into stick-out fright, though the bird was long past fear now and all the way crazy. No fear of the human foot. A pedestrian waded through the flock, which parted for her in a wave, all but the crazy one, and it was kicked, startling the pedestrian more than the bird.
The woman shrieked and stiff-walked down Seventh Avenue. The insane pigeon followed after her, listing to one side with some damage from the kick, until he forgot his purpose.
I do not like the Thought Police, modern cousins to D. H. Lawrence’s Censor Morons-I love these people. I cultivate them. I call them Cannon Fodder.
And I make no apologies… except for the gratuitous pigeon.