ON OFF
Colleen McCullough

 


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Simon & Schuster, June 2006
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Mystery. Connecticut, 1965

The refrigerator was meant for dead animals, not human body parts. Two pieces of a girl or young woman are found chilling with the rats, until time for the body bags to be incinerated.

The neurological center, fondly known as the Hug, is an adjunct to Chubb University in Connecticut. They do groundbreaking research on epilepsy. Their disposal system for experimental animals has become a convenience for someone who has been torturing teenaged girls to death.

Lieutenant Carmine Delmonico canít even be sure the killer works at the Hug. He does know that someone has been snatching well-raised, beautiful, non-white girls for years and subjecting them to unspeakable pain. He also knows that the killer is running rings around him and loving it. This killer is too smart for him; Delmonico is going to have to get very lucky.

ON OFF explodes into life in the first paragraph, rather like a Big Bang: a subtle vitality continues to expand right through the last page. The motive force of ON OFF is the exploration of character: cop, suspects, and community. Because the author is Colleen McCullough, we know the people will be well-rounded and unique. Gradually we dig deeper into everyone, from the head of the Hug to the nephew of its lowest technician. The case becomes a spark for racial demonstrations, and still we donít know who the killer is. It takes that stroke of luck for Delmonico to reveal the full horror. Well, most of the horror.

Oddly enough, ON OFF is not a stomach-churning book. You donít have to love the gruesome to tolerate it, because the focus is psychological. We get an idea about epilepsy research through the confused eyes of Delmonico, so we donít have to understand it. We see animal experimentation from the viewpoints of the surgical technician, who is as humane as she can possibly be, and Colin, who loves his monkeys as if they were his children. There is an endearing early scene where Colin soothes one of his charges by letting it groom him during a police interview: one of many scenes where our emotions are stirred into sympathy. Even during the final revelation, when the sewer cover is pulled entirely aside, there is a charge of empathy that forbids us to wall out the killer completely.

Colleen McCullough has made a success of yet another type of fiction. Best known for THE THORNBIRDS, she also wrote the classic TIM, a wise and moving romance. The first two of her Roman series, THE FIRST MAN IN ROME and THE GRASS CROWN, deserve to be classics. No matter what the subject, she has rarely disappointed me. Character is her strongest talent; many of her creations are unforgettable. Here is another, a haunting personality who undoubtedly continues to live after the bookís end.

Oct 2006

 

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