I finished On, Off by Colleen McCullough on the bus, rushing breathlessly to the end, trying to find out how this tale could possibly end!
Carmie Delmonico is a Lieutenant with the Holloman Police Department in Holloman, Connecticut. Holloman is known for its university, its hospital and medical school, and its “Hug.” The Hug, as the prestigious neuroscience research centre is known (for reasons I will leave other readers to discover), is a formidable place – richly endowed, lavishly run, overwhelmingly blessed with scientific talent and acumen. But all the outward graces in the world cannot protect the Hug from a monster intent on destruction.
The dismembered body of a teenager is found in the refrigerator in which the Hug’s researchers place their deceased lab animals for disposal. It quickly becomes apparent, because the discovery was a freak accident, that the refrigerator has been used as a conduit for disposing of murdered human remains before, and with frightening regularity. Lieutenant Delmonico must infiltrate the alternate universe that is a prestigious scientific research facility – with all its in-fighting, its internal squabbles, its singular personalities, every single one of which has something to hide.
Delmonico and the entire Holloman Police Department long for the days of “regular” crimes committed by “regular” criminals – known offenders and those easily ferreted out – for the Connecticut Monster is nothing but a ghost, managing to kidnap and murder with seeming impunity under the careful watch of police throughout the state. In 1965, the serial killer is a much less familiar figure than today, and Delmonico fears that he is ill-equipped to capture this ghost and stop his reign of terror.
Colleen McCullough is best known as the author of The Thorn Birds. What I didn’t know about her is that she is a neuroscientist by training and practice – researching and teaching in the Department of Neurology at Yale Medical School. Her training is evident in the meticulous characterization of the Hug and its unique scientific occupants. She has also drawn a remarkably likable character in Lieutenant Carmine Delmonico. On, Off is a well-balanced book. There is tragedy and horror, love and family life, betrayal and come-uppance, a vivid portrait of a world on the brink of seismic change (1965 America), solid police work and red herrings galore. McCullough’s perspective tends toward the epic, which makes this novel much more than justa murder mystery. Though I am looking forward to reading about Delmonico’s further adventures in Too Many Murders and Naked Cruelty.