Mallory the strong,
O'Connell the great

''Dead Famous''
By Carol O'Connell
(Putnam, 288 pps., $24.95)

Reviewed by John Orr
September 2003

''Dead Famous'' by Carol O'Connell is the complete antidote to any story about weak and stupid women, ladies who faint or princesses who need men to come save them.

Carol O'Connell In this tough, action-, wit- and surprise-packed novel, the men ... even those we know to be heroic ... do the fainting and stumbling around while the women kick butt and take names.

''Dead Famous'' is the eighth in O'Connell's knock-out series starring Kathy (Just Call Me) Mallory, her detective partner P. Riker and moon-lighting partner Charles Butler, the genius.

This story adds a fabulous new character, Johanna Apollo, a beautiful and brilliant hunchback who is working for a service that cleans up crime scenes after they are released by the cops.

''I'll be done in an hour, and then you can have your life back,'' she tells a man before removing any signs of the violent murder of his wife in the home they'd shared. The blood stains are cleaned, the bullet holes filled, the body outline removed.

It's apparent immediately that Apollo is more than a janitor. She knows way too much about forensics, reading the crime scene like a book: ''She wondered if anyone had told the husband that his wife had not suffered long.''

She'd gotten her start in such work in her own home. ''The armchair had absorbed most of the FBI agent's blood, and so it had been a simple matter of furniture disposal after mopping up the puddle on the floor and the red drops spattered on the wall.''

But even more intriguing to O'Connell's fans is the presence of Mallory, who is tailing Apollo, and who'd just won a Manhattan parking space by scaring away another driver with her hard, cold, green eyes and a flash of her gun, but not her badge.

''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.''

O'Connell takes her time to lay out the full complexity of her story, but it's all time well spent. Catching up with Riker, who'd been shot four times in the chest before this book begins and who thinks he is ruined as a cop, handicapped in ways other than the physical. Finding out about a psycho shock jock who is spurring his moronic listeners to help find people in the federal witness-protection program. Meeting Mugs, Apollo's sociopathic cat who shreds the flesh of many characters before this muscular book races to its end.

And it's like a huge chess game with multiple players ... the shock jock and his audience attacking from one direction, Apollo setting out what becomes a very complex, very well thought-out strategy, and Mallory herself, whose long game is not meant, necessarily, to solve a string of serial murders, but to rescue her friend and partner, Riker, from alcoholism and suicide.

This book is tough and brilliant in the way we like to think of its city, New York, as tough and brilliant. To make it in the Big Apple, ya gotta be smart, ya gotta be talented, ya gotta be tough.

Part of its great appeal is that all the major characters, on both sides of the good-bad line, are smart. There are no apologies to be made for any of O'Connell's powerful characterizations, plotting or story telling. And she has plenty of truth to lay down about a society where ''reality TV'' and gasbag radio talk-show hosts are not just tolerated, but celebrated.

And, it must be said, there are hilarious moments in this book, and there is nothing hackneyed about how O'Connell brings a reader to laughter. No sitcom laugh tracks needed here.

O'Connell is among the top mystery writers working today, and she's bringing a hard edge of greatness to the genre.