WINTER HOUSE is unusual. This is not your ordinary mystery,
beginning with the acknowledgment that will unexpectedly bring
tears to your eyes without you quite knowing why (at least not at
first) until the very end. Carol O'Connell populates her novels
with unusual individuals, all of whom are significantly damaged
and/or flawed in some way.
Kathy Mallory is one of these characters. Mallory --- as she
insists on being called --- is no ordinary police detective. There
is an element of disconnection to her personality that goes beyond
her early childhood on the streets of New York City. She is
suspicious of everyone, for every possible reason, and that trait,
so admirable a quality in her chosen profession, keeps her at arm's
length from those around her. She is a walking multitude of rough
edges; touch her, and you get cut.
O'Connell's Mallory novels are always unusual, for many reasons,
and WINTER HOUSE is no exception. The police are called to Winter
House, an infamous mansion on the border of Central Park, to
investigate a homicide. The victim, it seems, is an intruder, but
he is more than that. He is a serial murderer who had inexplicably
been released on bond a few days prior to his untimely end. He is,
to put it another way, someone who will never be missed. Yet his
death is not an ending, but a beginning. For Winter House was the
site of an unsolved mass murder that occurred almost sixty years'
previously, when eight members of the Winter family were wiped out,
and a ninth, Nedda Winter, went missing.
Until now Nedda Winter has suddenly returned, and it is she who has
slain the home invader, the serial murderer, in a manner similar to
that in which her family members were slain almost six decades
previously. The present inhabitants of Winter House --- Nedda's
half-brother and sister, Lionel and Cleo, and Nedda's niece Bitty
--- are the sole remaining inhabitants of Winter House, and each
has their secrets.
Mallory is not content to let matters rest. How a serial murderer
came to this house, and met such a surprising (albeit welcome)
ending, contemporaneously with the reappearance of Nedda Winter, is
too much to be a coincidence. Mallory's partner Riker is dragged
along in her wake, as is Charles Butler, Mallory's unofficial
partner in their very unofficial investigative side-business.
Butler forms a platonic but intense relationship with the
long-missing Nedda, a relationship that puts him at odds with
Mallory's take-no-prisoners approach to divining the truth, no
matter what it may be. Her investigation raises more questions than
it answers, at least at first. The ultimate solution is not
surprising, so long as one adopts Mallory's viewpoint: no one is
O'Connell has a very unique style of storytelling; it is quite
unlike anything you've ever read. She will not be rushed, and the
details she presents are always important, even if they are not
germane to the main plot. The reason is that O'Connell's stories
are as much about the characters involved in the mystery as they
are about the mystery itself. Take Charles Butler. We learn about
his lonely childhood, a tall genius among cruel mental cretins; his
burgeoning obsessive-compulsive disorder; and his collection of
antiques. It is not that any of these elements have anything to do
with the thrust of WINTER HOUSE, yet they form part of a strong but
subtle foundation upon which the novel is built. It is Mallory who,
in the end, continues to remain a disturbing enigma.
WINTER HOUSE may have trouble finding its audience due to how
slowly and steadily it makes its macabre way through a decades-old
mystery that has repercussions in the present. Start it, and stay
with it. The journey is the reward. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2011