Carol O'Connell
rises to
the task

OK, so the author isn't as tall
or as scary Kathy Mallory;
but her writing
is of greatest stature
Carol O'Connell

Interview with the author of "Dead Famous,"
latest in a great series
starring the toughest woman in crime fiction

Reviewed by John Orr

(Click on the images to see larger versions.)

Carol O'Connell was officially a starving artist in New York at the time she created the toughest, most competent woman detective in crime fiction.

''I was writing in the closet,'' O'Connell remembers, ''and re-arranging my paintings in the living room in case any gallery owners came by, they would think I was still producing new work.''

But her new work was actually a novel -- one she says is now in bits and pieces and will never see the light of day -- starring a cop named Louis Markowitz.

But along the way she realized she was more interested in an another character in that book, Kathy Just-Call-Me Mallory.

''She was just a peripheral character,'' says O'Connell, who will speak at M is for Mystery in San Mateo on Friday (Sept. 19, 2003). ''But I got so taken with her. There should have been more Mallory in that book, but there were two very large personalities, and only one could exist in a book,'' O'Connell explained.

So, Markowitz had to die, and he did, at the beginning of ''Mallory's Oracle,'' the very successful first entry in this excellent series. Markowitz' death was the crime for Mallory to solve in that book. And that's what Mallory does in these stories -- she solves crimes in highly competent, highly intelligent ways, making her a rare female in crime fiction. And she is very, very tough.

''The way her character is,'' O'Connell said by phone from her home in New York, ''Is in that line from James Joyce's ''Ulysses'' -- I'm sure you'll remember (I didn't), when Bloom is downstairs, looking at his wife's cat -- the cat is also a metaphor for the wife:

''Cruel. Her nature. Curious mice never squeal. Seem to like it.''

That line, says O'Connell, is engraved on the backs of her eyelids, but she could have gone on a bit in quoting Joyce about the cat: ''She blinked up out of her avid shameclosing eyes, mewing plaintively and long, showing him her milkwhite teeth. He watched the dark eyeslits narrowing with greed till her eyes were green stones.''

Carol O'Connell

Carol O'Connell

These two color images of Carol O'Connell were made on September 21, 2002, at Mystery One in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and posted on Thanks to and photographer Jon Jordan for letting us use them here.
Because Mallory has beautiful green eyes, perfect white teeth, and her finely manicured, long fingernails are the bright red of fresh blood -- not from dead mice.

In O'Connell's latest, ''Dead Famous,'' released on Monday (Sept. 15, 2003), Mallory -- tailing someone -- needs a parking space that has just been taken. She tells the pudgy driver to move his car.

'''Yeah, lady,''' he says, '''Over my dead body.' And she raised one eyebrow to indicate that this might be an option. The long slants of her eyes were unnaturally green -- unnaturally cold. A milk-white hand rested on the door of his car, long red fingernails tapping, tapping, ticking like a bomb, and it occurred to him that those nails might be dangerous.''

Mallory flashes her gun, but not her badge, and the guy takes off.

''Kathy Mallory had a detective's gold shield, but she rarely used the badge to motivate civilians. Listening to angry tirades on abuse of police power was time-consuming; fear was more efficient.''

There are precious few really competent, really smart woman detectives in crime fiction -- too many of them stumble around until the bad guy catches them, then have to somehow escape in a Hollywood ending.

The closest character to Mallory is Amelia Sachs, of Jeffery Deaver's great Lincoln Rhyme series, but even Sachs has her weaknesses. Like Mallory she is tall, beautiful, smart and tough, but has human flaws: she has nearly crippling arthritis, and she loves people, including Rhyme.

No arthritis for Mallory, and whatever love she feels is unspoken, even if it is acted upon, as in ''Dead Famous,'' which is largely about her actions to save her old cop partner, Riker.

''She's a sociopath,'' says O'Connell of her Mallory, to the point. ''I get letters asking if I would write a kinder, gentler Mallory, but I tell them if I did that, I've got no career.''

Her career began with the usual returned, unopened manuscripts as she faced what she calls the ''Catch-22'' of New York publishing: A writer needs an agent to get a publisher, but needs to be published in order to get an agent.

So she sent her first Mallory novel, ''Mallory's Oracle,'' to England, where it was auctioned in Europe, successfully. Then it was brought back to New York, where publishers fought over it like scrapyard dogs.

''Money relieves the anxiety of not having money,'' she said. ''I got a larger apartment, two-bedrooms. The large room is my office, the bedroom is like a coffin, but I only sleep there. I spend 18 hours a day in the other room.''

She takes a solid year to write each new Mallory book. ''So much of it is rewriting. I am knee-deep in drafts.''

''Knee-deep'' for O'Connell is not as deep as it would be for Mallory, by the way.

''When I went to London, they'd only seen the first manuscript, they were immediately disappointed. They were expecting the tall and willowly Mallory.

''Their faces felt apologetic just for me being me,'' said O'Connell.

''I am not tall. My height is the only thing I lie about. Once I passed for 5-4, but I'm not even 5-3.''

How does one lie about one's height?

''I was dating a guy who was 6-6. He just wasn't good at gauging heights close to the ground.''

Carol O'Connell is to appear at M is for Mystery, 86 E. Third Ave., San Mateo, at 7 p.m. Friday (Sept. 19, 2003). For more information, call (650) 401-8077.