When I “discovered” mysteries in my late 20s, I was enamoured of the contemporary tough woman protagonist. I devoured books by Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton. I branched out to Jan Burke, Marissa Piesman, Sarah Shankman, Karen Kijewski.
But Lillian O’Donnell was a standout for me. I couldn’t get enough of her Norah Mulcahaney police procedurals, and fortunately she’d written a slew of them since 1972, making her officially — in my eyes, anyway — the founder of this genre of tough women protagonists. She hadn’t started out as a writer, but instead began her professional career in the theater as an actress and dancer, eventually becoming one of the first women stage managers. After she got married, she turned to writing, with more than 30 titles to her name before her death in 2005.
I bought her 1994 book LOCKOUT when it came out. This was rather late in the Norah Mulcahaney series (she also wrote two other series) and Norah had worked her way to lieutenant detective in the New York police force through the books. In LOCKOUT, she is widowed and trying to adopt a child as a single parent, but portrayed continually as sensible and sensitive to women’s issues in the police department. She gets a rude awakening in this book, since she is forced to identify one of her detectives in a protest video and she begins to get threatening phone calls from her own people. She is also trying to solve the murder of a rock star’s brother during a studio lockout. And, if that’s not enough, she is involved in the shooting of a mugger in Central Park. Whew. And all this is in just 239 pages.
I hadn’t re-read this book since I’d bought it, and it still holds up for me as a compelling read. It makes me want to go back to the library and start from the beginning again. This is one series to definitely read in order, because Norah begins in the first book THE PHONE CALLS as a rookie police officer, she meets Lt. Joe Capretto in the second, they get married in a subsequent book, and he suffers his fate even later. While Norah is described as attractive (her habit of pulling her long, dark hair back in a scarf, however, seems dated now) and smart, she is also compassionate and passionate about her work.
While this is supposed to be about one Forgotten Book, the entire series is worth a look and if my small town library has many of the books, I’m sure others do, too. O’Donnell was a pioneer, and there is something special about her work that should be appreciated by anyone writing or reading the genre.