"Bone by Bone"
(Reviewed by Dean Murphy MAR 29, 2009)
This thriller by Edgar award-nominated Carol O’Connell is “The Twilight Zone” revisited, Rod Serling eerily narrating. Setting aside her Mallory mystery series, O’Connell creates a new character in this stand-alone mystery. Oren Hobbs, a questionably discharged Army criminal investigator who specialized in unearthing clues from mass graves in Baghdad, is said to have a “special knack for ripping a human being's mind inside out --- without damaging the flesh.” This is also a coming-of-age story for Oren, with piano-wire tension for the reader.
If T.S. Eliot's “Practical Cats” can be adapted into a Broadway play, Bone by Bone has potential equaling that spectacular performance, using birds as the medium. Way-beyond-half-mad birder Sarah Winston's drawings depict each small-town Coventry resident as a bird with unique features, “some with fangs, others with knives as talons.” Sarah’s daughter Isabelle finds the volumes of sketches and recognizes her stepfather Addison, not as the benevolent attorney he appears to be, but some hideous winged creature. Perhaps Sarah is not as interested in birds as she is in using a birding telescope aligned to view the bedroom window of neighbor William Swahn, a former Los Angeles rookie police officer brutally crippled, his face carved with the letter A. Does it represent The Scarlet Letter’s Aduletry or AIDS, as it’s rumored that Swahn is gay? Addison represented Swahn in a discrimination suit against LAPD. But why does Swahn with a windfall out-of-court settlement buy the house in northern California next door to Sarah, ten years his senior, far away from San Francisco’s gay Castro District?
The reader need not be an ornithologist to see Coventry's peculiar residents as they are drawn by Sarah, but an interest in psychology would be helpful to understand the complex and mysterious motivations of truly bizarre personalities. Complexities of Coventry's commoners are detailed in photos on display, tidbits of life stolen by teen photog/artist Josh Hobbs. Clandestine glances and intrigue are captured by the young artist hours before he disappears. Josh’s photographs are displayed at the post office and cannot be removed from federal property. Each catches a resident in some suspicious act, but visible only to the observant --- or those who committed suspicious acts, any of whom may have had reason to harm Josh.
Coventry is really a coven of witches, mob and “Witch Trial” mentality, and as is this phenomenal novel, a tale of intolerance as a tool to teach tolerance. Swahn’s face disfigured by scars is pleasant, compared to souls tortured by their owners of their own making. Did disfigured Swahn lust after unblemished Josh, giving residents cause to lynch him? Guilt for which none should exist is more profoundly intense than that for cause. Judge Hobbs’s almost-clairvoyant eerie housekeeper Hannah mysteriously appeared on the funeral day of Oren’s mother. Hannah considers Ouija Board --- “witchboard” as she calls it --- and many séances attended by Coventry residents witchcraft, but Josh hauntingly communicates to Oren at a séance twenty years after his disappearance. And séances can call upon only those in the spirit world.
Middle-aged innkeeper Evelyn Straub filed an affidavit with Sheriff Babbit that she saw teenaged Oren and Josh go into the woods together. Only Oren returned, tormented for twenty years by his fifteen-year-old brother’s apparent death. If Oren murdered Josh, why return to solve the mystery? What purpose would Evelyn have for claiming that Oren was in the woods on the day Josh disappeared, and why would Oren not contradict the affidavit? As Josh’s bones appear, Oren returns from Baghdad to piece together --- if not his brother’s bones --- clues that bumbling Babbit failed to two decades before.
Now, bone by bone, skeletal remains of Joshua Hobbs regularly appear on Judge Hobbs's front porch, accompanied by pre-dawn howling of a mysterious dog “of dubious pedigree." Many of Coventry's residents are suspect, especially Joshua's older sibling, protagonist Oren Hobbs. Even Sheriff Babbit --- who “doesn't have the talent to catch a shoplifter” --- is cast in a shadow of guilt by knowing where Joshua's remains are buried. Oren's father, “the Judge," shares that shadow, with his own sleepwalking night terrors. The only person not suspect in the homicide is Joshua's and Oren's long-dead mother.
Sally --- “just call me Sally” --- Polk is a female version of Columbo, “a dumpy hausfrau in a flowered sack that passed for a dress.” Investigator Polk takes rope from Babitt and hands it back to him, to hang himself with gaffs he created by his inept handling of the 20-year-old cold case. Polk engages the services of the country's second-best skeletal forensics expert, the first-best being Aaron Elkins's Skeleton Detective, Gideon Oliver. There's a big hole in his theory of the murderer's identity but the Oren cleverly fills in that hole in the closing chapters.
Impeccable plot, prose as rich as California, and psychologically complex carrots dangled before the reader make Bone by Bone a sure-fire bestseller, exceeding eloquence found in O’Connell’s best-selling Find Me.
- Amazon readers rating: from 32 reviews
(back to top)
Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
Mallory Mystery Series:
- Mallory's Oracle (1994)
- The Man Who Cast Two Shadows (1995) (aka The Man Who Lied to Women)
- Killing Critics (1996)
- Stone Angel (1997)
- Shell Game (1999)
- Crime School (2002)
- Dead Famous (2003) (aka The Jury Must Die)
- Winter House (2004)
- Find Me (October 2007)
(back to top)
- Wikipedia page for Carol O’Connell
- Triviana interview with Carol O’Connell
- Tangled Web page for Carol O'Connell
- Dancing Badger on the Mallory Series
- Veronica's Blog on Mallory's Oracle
- Guardian review of Bone by Bone
- The New York Times review of Bone by Bone
- Joy's List review of Bone by Bone (scroll down)
- BookReporter review of Bone by Bone
(back to top)
About the Author:
Carol O’Connell was born in 1947. She studied at the California Institute or Arts/Chouinard and the Arizona State University. For many years she survived on occasional sales of her paintings as well as freelance proof-reading and copy-editing.
At the age of 46, O'Connell sent the manuscript of Mallory's Oracle to Hutchinson, because she felt that a British publisher would be sympathetic to a first time novelist and because Hutchinson also published Ruth Rendell. Having miraculously found the book on the slush pile, Hutchinson immediately came back with an offer for world rights, not just for, Mallory's Oracle but for the second book featuring the same captivating heroine. Mallory's Oracle was nominated for the 1985 Edgar Award.
She lives in New York City and writes full time.