Bone by Bone

Most crime fiction by definition follows a linear pattern. Someone is murdered, usually in the earliest pages. A police detective is dispatched to the scene and asked to investigate, or a private investigator signs on when all leads are exhausted and seemingly all mean streets have been explored. Then comes resolution, with one twist or several, and early-going chaos is transformed into late-blooming order.

It’s a storytelling template that, by accommodating even the most far-out premise and idiosyncratic character, ends up masking its inherently conservative core. A new voice is considered fresh not because it breaks new ground but because it tweaks a single element — setting, social concerns, domestic situation, you name it — and in doing so convinces the reader there is something different at work.

Carol O’Connell, however, belongs in a whole other category. Her authorial voice has little patience with conventions or formula or linearity. If crime novels are the equivalent of sonata form, adhering to the tight constraints of exposition, development and recapitulation, O’Connell adheres to serialism, reshuffling convention according to larger whims and broader canvases. Reading one of her books is like squinting at a Seurat painting up close, each page a step backward until the pattern emerges, shockingly whole, at the end — with more than enough loose ends to make us wonder if there’s a whole other pointillist work of art embedded within the original frame.

There are no better examples of crime fiction written from the oblique than O’Connell’s series of novels featuring Mallory (her first name is Kathleen, but woe to those who dare utter it in her presence), an NYPD detective whose methods seem barely contained by the framework of procedure and investigation — not when there’s computer hacking to be done or bad people to punish, according to a code that rational people might interpret as sociopathic. But in eight novels — from 1994’s Mallory’s Oracle, in which the eponymous heroine shakes out secret-filled trees to discover who killed her adoptive father and policing mentor, to Find Me, with its blood-drenched quest along Route 66 in search of a child killer and her father’s whereabouts, — readers have come to discover that Mallory’s seemingly predatory qualities are made palatable by her unshakeable sense of justice and loyalty to those few people she trusts. Her friends are few, male, and often openly or secretly in love with Mallory, but in her mind they are family.

Early installments of the Mallory novels came out in consecutive years, but a character looming as large as she does now needs regular rest. So O’Connell instead switches gears with her first stand-alone novel in a decade. Like Judas Child, arguably her best work, Bone by Bone operates within the confines of a small, claustrophobic town, in direct parallel with the urban Manhattan that Mallory calls home. Just as that series manipulates the conventions of the police procedural and Judas Child darkly tweaked the traditional premise of child murders, Bone by Bone subverts the surface of what’s now a cliché — two teens go into the woods and only one comes out — by making the tale subservient to a larger study of the consequences of holding on to secrets for a dangerously long time.

Oren Hobbs was the older of the two teens in question, and after his 15-year-old brother, Josh, became the most enduring mystery of the Northern California town of Coventry 20 years before, he ran away to the Army — eventually serving as a warrant officer in the Criminal Investigations Division. What greets Oren upon his arrival home is a sick father, the town’s long-standing and recently retired judge, and a jawbone belonging to Josh, thrown on the porch with a loud thump — just one of several bones, “dusted with soil” with the skull bearing “the circular marks of cloth-wiped dirt” appearing at the Hobbs house since the boy went missing.

That Oren will be drawn into investigating what really happened to Josh, and that it will require him to delve into the recesses of long-buried memories, is not just understood but almost an afterthought. Instead, O’Connell is more interested in taking a magnifying glass to Coventry’s denizens and illuminating the part of the town’s life hidden to the naked eye. There’s the crumbling marriage of town scions Addison and Sarah Winston and the deleterious effect upon their daughter, Isabelle, whose smoky rebelliousness is reminiscent of an untamed horse. Hannah, who keeps house at the Hobbs’s stead, fools all with a placid demeanor (akin to her namesake in the Nancy Drew books) that covers troubling inconsistencies in her back-story. Ferris Monty collects photographs and takes a disturbing interest in Josh’s fate, but somehow he comes off with more sympathy and less suspicion. And what of Alice Friday, the local who loves to host s?ances? O’Connell does not mask the inherent cynicism for those who believe in the power of the Ouija board, but nor does she outright dismiss its strange power, either.

Though O’Connell’s prose is omniscient to the point of flatness, she reserves room for dark humor, and in one of the most provocative scenes in Bone by Bone, a high charge of eroticism develops through a tango danced between Oren and his former schoolmate Isabelle, as they now set “out to destroy each other in every move they made.” The reader can almost hear and smell the longing and contempt that provokes Oren’s father to remark, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen blood drawn on a dance floor.”

That line encapsulates the magic and the music of Bone by Bone, the astonishing sense of rhythm and control O’Connell marshals as she metes out information, unveils the darker impulses of her characters, and captures every throb and every nuance of this precisely imagined world. What lingers far longer than the surprises of the narrative is the image of her town of ghosts, a town that “had lost its charm and become a nightmare state where monsters roamed, walking birds with fangs and curled knives for talons.”