Sparrow, a middle-aged prostitute, is found hanging in the living room of her Greenwich Village apartment, the centerpiece of a ritualistic arrangement. Lit candles surround her; pieces of her hair are chopped off and stuffed in her mouth. The apartment has been set afire in select places, and dead insects surround the woman who, miraculously, survives in a coma. There’s a double jolt for the NYPD’s Kathleen Mallory (Shell Game, 1999, etc.): The crime scene reminds her of an unsolved murder of a generation ago, and Sparrow is a significant figure from Mallory’s childhood. The closest thing to the adopted girl’s big sister, Sparrow represented glamour, street smarts, and danger. Mallory’s connection to the victim makes her colleagues privately question her judgment and doubt her conviction that they’re looking for a serial killer. And sloppy police work in that earlier case, the murder of a young woman named Natalie Homer, obscures the connection to Sparrow’s attempted murder. Though Mallory is the story’s linchpin, O’Connell cuts among a handful of Special Crimes cops, sharply delineated, as they follow old leads and new evidence. Mallory’s scruffy partner Riker arouses her suspicion by pocketing and concealing key evidence that leads him to unexpected corners of Sparrow’s world. Mallory’s mentor, methodical Charles Butler, uncovers eye-opening details about her past. And cocky younger detective Deluthe stumbles into dangerous situations and valuable witnesses as the anonymous killer closes in on struggling actress Stella Small.
Like the best work of James Lee Burke and Barbara Vine, O’Connell’s character-driven procedural transcends genre pigeonholing. The juxtaposition of grisly detail and elegantly elliptical writing creates suspense that builds and resonates.