Chances are that the review below is not as objective as it ought to be. I’ve a rather large soft spot for Colleen McCullough and her work. I don’t know why she was the only female to have been included among the six literary legends immortalised on a set of stamps* commemorating Australia day this year (she’s tucked at the back, behind Bryce Courtenay in the picture) but she is one of my favourite Australians.
I admire her attitude, her intellect and the fact she has never conformed to expectations, either in her life or in her writing. Before she worked as an author she was a teacher, librarian and journalist before studying to be a neuroscientist. As far as her writing goes she has not allowed herself to be confined to any genre, instead having a go at every kind of fiction from epic romantic sagas like The Thorn Birds to science fiction (A Creed for the Third Millenium) to literary novellas (my personal favourite, The Ladies of Missalonghi) to a superbly detailed historical fiction series, Masters of Rome.
McCullough has, of late, turned her mind to crime fiction with Too Many Murders being the second of her novels to feature Captain Carmine Delmonico and the police force of Holloman Connecticut. It opens on the 3rd of April 1967. A young student at the small city’s prestigious university is killed in a particularly gruesome way. One nasty murder would be enough to cope with in the relatively crime free city but there are 11 other murders on the same day and the small police force is stretched beyond its limits. Despite the fact that there are a variety of methods used and none of the victims appear to have anything in common Carmine Delmonico begins to suspect that there is a single person responsible for all of the deaths.
To say the book’s plot is complicated is something of an understatement. Between the alarming body count (it keeps growing after that first day) and the seemingly endless twists and turns you do feel the need to have a notebook by your side, especially in the first third of the book. Complicated is what McCullough does well though and it all does resolve itself in a satisfying way. However I’d have to admit that by incorporating so many murders and associated investigations the book has skimped a little on its tackling of the big-picture social and political issues which are intertwined with the story. Things like the women’s liberation movement and the cold war between the US and Russia are present more superficially than I’d expect from McCullough and there are tangential threads that could easily have been omitted in order to address such issues more deeply.
There are some fabulous characters though. Again, perhaps a few less would have enabled us to get to know some of them more deeply, but Carmine Delmonico and his wife, Desdemona, are thoroughly engaging, As the book opens they have yet to agree on a name for their 5 month old baby boy but their gentle arguing about the issue shows they have a quite lovely relationship which is an equal partnership possibly a little ahead of its time. Delmonico is a dedicated cop and caring about his subordinates as well as being a doting husband and father. If anything he’s a bit too perfect, also being extremely intelligent, but I can see him as a bit of an homage to the golden age private investigators like Hercule Poirot (I’ve been to see McCullough speak twice and on both occasions she has talked of her love for a good whodunnit). There’s a fabulous female ‘civilian’ working with the police called Delia Carstairs (who is eventually deputised and is instrumental in solving the case) and a cast of other intriguing heroes, villains and bit players.
I managed to keep track of this tale in the well-narrated audio version but due to the complexity of the tale I wouldn’t recommend it for audio book novices. Any way you read it though I would highly recommend this romp of a yarn with its larger than life characters and absurdly complicated story full of criminal masterminds, cold war espionage and heroic investigators. It’s not McCullough’s best writing but even her average is pretty darned good.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 4/5
Narrator: Bill Ten Eyck Publisher: Bolinda Publishing ; ISBN: N/A (downloaded from audible); Length: 13hrs 4mins; Setting: Connecticut, USA, 1967
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
72 year old McCullough has, this month, undergone brain surgery to relieve trigeminal neuralgia which causes excruciating pain to all parts of the face including the lips and eyes. She was reported to have been afraid of having the surgery as it might result in permanent brain damage and leave her unable to write. I for one hope she pulls through, in tact.
Here are two snippets from Colleen McCullough’s appearance on an Australian talk show a couple of years ago.
*It’s wonderful to see writers being commemorated in this way (even though the legends list includes the author whose name cannot be spoken in my house) but it says a lot about our country that in the 13 years the Australian Legends stamps have been issued we’ve commemorated all manner of sporting identities (Sir Donald Bradman in 1997, Olympians the following year, tennis champs in 2003 and horse racing folk in 2007), a swag of other entertainers (country singer Slim Dusty in 2001, opera star Dame Joan Sutherland in 2004 and satirist Barry Humphries [a.k.a Dame Edna Everage] as well as our very own Hollywood actors in 2009) and even fashion designers (2005) before we got around to writers.
Unusually I’ve allowed this book to count for two of my current challenges