A complex, gritty thriller that is at once hard to take and hard to put down.
It opens with a woman taking a group of schoolchildren on a visit to Sheep Meadow, part of Manhattan’s Central Park. After the children wander off, she collapses and dies from a massive stroke, and a horde of rats gnaw on her corpse. A mysterious 8-year-old waif named Coco appears and displays considerable knowledge of vermin. One of a series of novels featuring NYPD detective Kathy Mallory, this book has a number of surprising and grisly twists. The characters are fascinating, though, including crazy Mallory, who had once been a street urchin herself and now brings a unique perspective to her job. Coco has Williams Syndrome, a condition that manifests itself partly in excessive desire to be loved, even by strangers. Give her a hug and she’s cool, but don’t get her started talking about rats. Meanwhile, Mallory investigates the murder of a schoolboy named Ernest Nadler—Dead Ernest—who has been systematically tormented by a small group of other children. Who are they, and why did they do it? Has someone put them up to the crime? No doubt children exist who are capable of such evil, although they are hard to imagine. And perhaps such children—speaking of vermin—need no particular motivation to inflict themselves on a classmate. But the ultimate motivation for the crime and the deep, insane intrafamily hatred seem rather hard to believe. Hardly the craziest character in the story, Mallory pursues the case with a certain emotional detachment. She gets in the faces of powerful people even as she strives to protect the strange Coco, who doesn’t seem surprised when rats fall from the sky.
Readers who dislike tales of torture and murder of children will take a pass on this one, but those who relish justice will be glad they read to the end.