A powerful stab
to the heart of matters

Carol O'Connell

''Winter House''
By Carol O'Connell
(Putnam, 306 pp., $24.95)
Buy at Amazon

Reviewed by John Orr
October 2004

Family is an issue in lots of mysteries. The detective discovers the victim or the murderer is his or her spouse, son, daughter, father, mother or psychotic split personality. The detective's child, lover or dog is kidnapped by the creep. The cop neglects his own family to stop a serial killer and saves the town but goes home to find a note and empty closets. But no mystery author I've read writes with more truthful emotional intensity about family issues than Carol O'Connell in her peerless Kathy Mallory series.

In the latest, ''Winter House,'' Detective Mallory seems almost a mere sideshow to the impassioned story of the Winter family, which has been haunted for decades by the massacre of five siblings, their father, stepmother, nanny and housekeeper. All of whom had died from wounds made by an ice pick wielded by a killer the police called the Stick Man.

When this novel opens, a survivor of that horrible night -- then a child, now an elderly woman -- is back in that same house, which is filled with police investigating her for having stabbed an intruder to death with a pair of scissors.

Most of the cops want to give the old woman a medal -- the man she'd killed was a murderer they'd already been tracking. But among the cops on the scene is Mallory, ice water in her veins and brilliance in her brain, who has figured out the scissors were a ruse -- the bad guy had been stabbed first with an ice pick.

And the old woman who has copped to the killing is Nedda ''Red'' Winter, who disappeared after that long-ago massacre, and has only recently returned to Winter House. She'd been saved from an institution by her niece Bitty, only to be very coldly received by her sister -- Bitty's mother -- and brother. Her siblings, perhaps, blame her for the Stick Man killings. Or, perhaps, they just don't want her taking her share of their inheritance.

Suddenly Mallory and her partners, Detective Sergeant Riker and eidetic genius Charles Butler, are investigating not only the killing of a killer, but also a massacre more than 50 years old. And, if Riker's right, a mystery going back even farther: ''Eventually, he would have to tell her that Stick Man's killings had begun in 1860.''

As if that weren't enough, it seems the house itself may be malevolent. At one point Nedda goes to the basement, accompanied by ghosts of those killed when she was a child, including the housekeeper, Mrs. Tully. She sees a mouse on a sill, under a window held up by a stick. ''And though the wind had ceased and there was no visible agency to move the propping stick, the stick did fall. The slamming wood frame broke the back of the mouse. Its mouth opened wide and, in surprise, it died. Mrs. Tully laughed.''

That's pure O'Connell, of course. She uses a line from James Joyce's ''Ulysses'' about Bloom's cat to describe Mallory: ''Cruel. Her nature. Curious mice never squeal. Seem to like it.'' But that's part of the fun and charm of O'Connell's novels overall, not just Mallory.

It's a complicated story, one in which the hard-hearted Mallory, warm-hearted Riker and downright mushy Butler are often at odds as they track historic murders, old and new financial arrangements and just where the heck Nedda's been all these decades. The story is held together by O'Connell's usual witty, bravura writing, and by emotional power almost never found in other mysteries.

The brilliance of this novel is in the exploration of the feelings and motives of Nedda and Bitty, especially, and how they influence the Mallory/Riker/ Butler team. O'Connell fans, who've come to expect a lot from her, will still be knocked out by this one.