Checking in with
Carol O'Connell

''Bone by Bone''
By Carol O'Connell
(Putnam, 340 pages, $24.95)
Buy at Amazon

Reviewed by John Orr
December 2008

Carol O'Connell hates to be photographed and she hates to fly.

And yet there she is on the dust jacket of her excellent new mystery, "Bone by Bone," with long, curly hair and an intriguing look in her eye; and she is just starting an eight-city, 10-day book tour that will bring her to M is for Mystery in San Mateo on Sunday.

Carol O'ConnellHas she gotten more pragmatic about flying?

"Oh, I've never done it pragmatically," she said by phone recently, from her Upper West Side brownstone in Manhattan. "My doctor prescribes things for this. There are drugs to get me on the plane, and drugs to keep me from jumping off the plane while it's in the air."

And as for that intriguing look in her eye, in the new portrait by Sigrid Estrada, "It looks like I am smiling under duress," she explained. "And I am." The longer hair? "It took about six minutes to grow. I was really surprised."

She's doing better about that flying thing, even though it means hours without being able to smoke -- which used to be more of a problem for her.

"I no longer carry around designs for disabling smoke detectors in bathrooms," she said. "When they just started the smoking ban, I had to fly to Germany, to start a European book tour. And the flight was non-smoking, and I was kind of shocked. So my German publishers actually faxed me directions for how to disable the alarm in the bathroom.

"I never used them. Because it's, like, five years in jail."

O'Connell is one of the best writers working in the mystery genre today, and creator of Kathy Just-Call-Me Mallory, who is the favorite female detective for lots of mystery fans.

Mallory is tall, beautiful and very, very scary, a New York cop who doesn't hesitate to show a gun if it will get her a better parking place, and never afraid to hurl herself into any situation, against any enemy.

O'Connell has mentioned several times, in books and in conversation, that Mallory is sociopathic, but readers note that Mallory always seems to do her sociopathic thing on the side of good.

Mallory became O'Connell's meal ticket with the 1994 publication of "Mallory's Oracle" by a British publisher, after the New York publishers had all ignored the manuscript. Once the book sold in Europe, though, the American publishers fought like scrap-yard dogs for the American rights, removing O'Connell's official starving-artist status.

These days O'Connell does things pretty much her own way with publishers and with her books -- for instance, refusing to sign contracts for a book until it's finished.

That way of doing business came from experience.

"When I started out ... I had a two-book contract, and I am very conscientious about meeting deadlines. I was working out the resolution of the second book when they signed me for three and four. It made me a little crazy.

"During one period ... I wrote a book that simply didn't work, and I just put it in a drawer, it was not very good, and a second book, I didn't like that either, but the publisher was going totally nuts. 'Either you send me the book or I send someone to go get it.'

"So my editor looked at one of them, saw it had problems, but we reworked it ... I think it was 'Crime School.' It finally didn't bear much resemblance to what I'd written (originally)."

"Crime School" turned out to be one of her best books -- as is her latest, "Bone by Bone," which is a stand-alone that does not include Mallory or any of O'Connell's usual cast of characters.

In "Bone by Bone" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 340 pages, $24.95), Oren Hobbs comes home to the Northern California town of Coventry after 20 years of distinguished service in the Army, including in the Criminal Investigation Command.

First morning home, he hears a clunk on the porch outside, and steps out to find what he knows to be a human jaw bone. Not just any jaw bone, as it turns out, but that of his little brother, Josh, who has been coming home, Oren learns, bone by bone.

Hobbs of course immediately begins to investigate, even as many people continue to consider him the leading suspect in the long-ago disappearance of his brother. The mystery deepens when it becomes apparent that the pile of returned bones -- which his father the retired judge has been collecting in a coffin in Josh's old bedroom -- are from more than one body.

O'Connell unfolds a masterfully told story of the small town and the mysteries it has hidden for so long, with her unique blend of hard-edged humor, insightfulness and pathos that never descends to mawkishness.

For instance, the beautiful Isabelle Winston, who greets Oren's return first by tripping him in public, then later trying to run him down with a car.

People always thought Belle and Oren would marry and have children. The postmaster remembers he never knew whether Josh or Oren would come into town to pick up the mail, or when he would show up. "But little Belle Winston always knew, and she always beat Oren Hobbs into town. ... she'd come flying into town, little legs churning up dust, long hair flying. She'd run in the door and ask for her mail like it was a matter of life or death ... and then she'd stand by the lobby window, watching the street. Sometimes ten, fifteen minutes would go by ... The minute she saw him coming, she'd SLOWLY open the front door like she had all the time in the world ... and pass him on the sidewalk out there -- like she didn't notice that boy was alive.'' Oren wouldn't look at Belle, until she had passed by. Then he would turn to watch her walk away. "It was the greatest little love affair that almost happened," said the postmaster.

That little memory, some 20 years old, has a good deal to do with the rest of the book -- solving the key mystery of Josh's disappearance and death, with saving some innocent people years later -- as well as helping us appreciate why the grown-up and accomplished Isabelle Winston tries to run over the grown-up and accomplished Oren Hobbs.

For O'Connell, "Bone by Bone" was a chance to work with the "smaller canvas of a small town, concentraiting mainly on the people. Every book has to have a heart to it, like an organism. A small town has an appeal for me." Not that she overdoes that small-town stuff, other than living in one for a while when researching another of her novels, "Judas Child."

Most of the time she stays in one of her two Manhattan brownstones.

"I'm a born hermit," she said. "I only leave under duress," even though "over the years, New York has changed. All the artists and people, they've all gone. Almost all of them, only a few are left" from among her circle of friends. "Some to the island, others around the nation. On a book tour I get to hook up with old friends.

"As far as New York goes, people come here, do what they have to do and then get the hell out. If they're sane. I only think of leaving every other day."

Still, O'Connell says she likes that "in New York, if you want to do something, it's outside the door. Stick out your hand, cabs stop -- it's magic. It's sort of geared to me.''

And she likes the period architecture in her adopted city, including the 8-foot tall windows of her brownstone that look out on the backyards of her building and others on her block.

Her brownstone is likely to be carpeted in manuscripts at any given moment.

"A lot of versions of the same book," O'Connell explained. "Drafts, layers, the next versions, a bit of everything. Something may occur really late at night. I have to get up, turn the lights on, make sure I am awake, then write it down.

"It's an interesting process, if you are sitting back and watching yourself do it.

"Writers block doesn't work for me, because I can always go back to some part of it and work on it, and something will grow."

Working on her books is "always the largest chunk of my day when I am on a roll. It can go on for a very long time, 16 hours. If it goes too long I have to tell myself to stop because you don't want to burn out. It's better to come back the next day when it's fresh. .... A good day would be six hours with a meal in between."

Mallory fans who were left with questions at the end of "Find Me" may be happy to know that O'Connell is working on a new Mallory novel -- although, as she always insists, the Mallory books aren't a series, they are each their own stand-alones.

But, a Mallory book is in the works.

"I can tell you a title," O'Connell said. "But you can't print it."

And she did, and I will not print it.

O'Connell novels reviewed by John Orr

"Crime School" - September 2002
"Dead Famous" - September 2003
"Winter House" - October 2004
"Find Me" - January 2007

2003 interview with Carol O'Connell