A great Mallory story
from Carol O'Connell

''Crime School''
By Carol O'Connell
(G.P. Putnam's Sons, 341 pps., $24.95)

Buy it at in hardcover

Reviewed by John Orr
September 2002

Too many modern mysteries with female detectives fall into the same trap: The woman shamus wanders around collecting clues and thinking about men, then -- rather than finding the bad guy herself -- is caught by him and just barely escapes.

Carol O'Connell No such trap for Kathy Mallory in ''Crime School,'' the sixth just-call-her-Mallory novel by Carol O'Connell.

I'm new to the series, and hope to play catch-up soon, because Mallory is the most interesting fictional detective I've come across in a few years.

She's not stupid, frivolous or obsessed with sex, for one thing, but instead focuses on being a tough and committed detective. What a refreshing change.

And she's surrounded by an excellent cast of co-characters. Detective Sergeant Riker, who knew her when she was a homeless and criminal street child, and who is now her partner in the NYPD Special Crimes section. Charles Butler, the eidetic genius who is her partner in her moonlight employee-evaluations business and who sometimes helps out in her detective work and who is silently but deeply in love with her.

Silently, because if Mallory has any interest in love or sex, it's not evident in this book. She is tall and beautiful (natch), but also tough and very scary. She accomplishes a lot just by scaring people. One look from those mean green eyes and nerve deserts even the toughest hoods.

In a telling scene, Butler is in an office talking with a retired detective when he realizes Mallory has quietly entered. ''How long had she been standing there in the center of the room? She took no notice of him, and the moment was almost like stealing, for he was free to stare at her, unafraid that his tell-all face would say foolish things.''

Riker loves her, too, but in a more fatherly way. He is the one who helped the late Inspector Louis Markowitz steal her off the streets in the first place, years before, and who helped fake her death to close the door on her criminal past.

But the past comes knocking when Sparrow, a hooker trying to make it as an actress, is stalked, caught and then hung by a serial killer who set fire to her apartment before leaving.

Riker does a stunning thing for an honest cop: He steals something from the crime scene. It's an old, cheap Western novel, soaked in fire-fighter water, that he gets Butler (who among many other accomplishments is a book restorer) to dry out and restore. The inscription was written, years ago, by Markowitz: "'Once there was a little girl. No, scratch that, kid. You were always more than that, bigger than life. I could have set you to music -- the damn "Star-Spangled Banner" -- because you prevailed through all the long scary nights. You were my hero.'''

Mallory has never seen the book, and why she hasn't is one small mystery woven in among many, including the big ones -- who tried to kill Sparrow (and more women to come), and was he the same person who killed another woman in similar fashion many years before?

Turns out Sparrow was someone who meant something to Mallory. When Mallory was a child, her dying mother had written a phone number on her hand. ''All but the last four digits had been smudged off her hand before that terrible day had ended.'' When she was a child lost in New York, every day she would dial a random trio of numbers, then those last four digits.

Whenever a feminine voice answered, the child Mallory would say ''It's Kathy. I'm lost.''

And one winter night, when sick and feverish, she made the call again.

''Out of a thousand women, only Sparrow had responded. 'Where are you, baby? I'll come get you.'''

That was the beginning of a peculiar and special relationship Mallory was to develop with Sparrow and many other prostitutes during her street life, and one of the long threads of mystery woven by this fascinating novel.

Mallory, Riker and Butler find clues, interview witnesses and suspects and solve crimes on purpose with intelligent work. That alone makes ''Crime School'' a standout among modern mysteries.

That O'Connell has created such fascinating characters and develops them with a ring of truth and street-hardened humanity puts this novel in some mighty rarefied air. ''Crime School'' is great, no bones about it.