Colleen McCullough, who crafts "fiction at its best" (Time), triumphs with a searing murder mystery packed with heartpounding twists inside the world of science.
All the victims were pretty girls.
When the remains of a young woman are found at a Connecticut neurological institute, Lieutenant Carmine Delmonico is called to investigate. It is only the first of a serial killer's grisly crimes, however, and Delmonico is plunged into his most perplexing and terrifying case.
All the victims looked alike.
A frightening pattern emerges as the violence escalates, and Delmonico senses the killer is among the institute's staff of scientists and doctors. Infiltrating their ranks, he gets closer to manager Desdemona Dupre, who can help him uncover the secrets, politics, and backstabbing ambitions harbored there.
All is not what it seems.
But this audacious killer's game has only just begun a game poised to unravel everything Delmonico believes, and pull the detective who's seen it all into a shocking face-off with a staggering revelation at its core.
About the Author
Hometown:Norfolk Island, 1,000 miles off the Australian coast
Date of Birth:June 1, 1937
Place of Birth:Wellington, New South Wales, Australia
Education:Attended University of Sydney
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 1
Wednesday, October 6th, 1965
Jimmy woke up gradually, conscious at first of only one thing: the perishing cold. His teeth were chattering, his flesh ached, his fingers and toes were numb. And why couldn't he see? Why couldn't he see? All around him was pitch darkness, a blackness so dense he had never known anything like it. As he grew wider awake he realized too that he was imprisoned in something close, smelly, alien. Wrapped up! Panic set in and he began to scream, to claw frantically at whatever was confining him. It ripped and tore, but when the stygian coldness persisted after he managed to free himself, his terror drove him mad. There were other things all around him, the same smelly kind of restraints, but no matter how he shrieked, ripped, tore, he couldn't find a way out, couldn't see a particle of light or feel a puff of warmth. So he shrieked, ripped, tore, his heart roaring in his ears and the only noises his own.
Otis Green and Cecil Potter came into work together, having hooked up on Eleventh Street with a broad grin for each other. Dead on 7 A.M., but wasn't it great not to have to punch a time clock? Their place of work was civilized, man, no arguments there. They put their lunch pails in the small stainless steel cupboard they had reserved for their own use no need for locks, there were no thieves here. Then they started the business of their day.
Cecil could hear his babies calling for him; he went straight to their door and opened it, speaking to them in a tender voice.
"Hi, guys! How ya doin' huh? Everybody sleep well?"
The door was still hissing shut behind Cecil when Otis saw to the least palatable job of his day, emptying the refrigerator. His wheeled plastic bin smelled clean and fresh; he put a new liner in it and pushed it over to the refrigerator door, a heavy steel one with a snap-lock handle. What happened next was a blur: something streaking past him as he opened the door, screaming like a banshee.
"Cecil, get out here!" he yelled. "Jimmy's still alive, we gotta catch him!"
The big monkey was in a state of gibbering frenzy, but after Cecil talked to him a little while and then held out his arms, Jimmy bolted into them, shivering, his shrieks dying to whimpers.
"Jesus, Otis," Cecil said, cradling the beast like a father his child, "how did Dr. Chandra miss that? The poor little guy's been locked in the fridge all night. There there, Jimmy, there there! Daddy's here, little man, you're okay now!"
Both men were shocked and Otis's heart had a jelly roll beat to it, but no real harm was done. Dr. Chandra would be pleased as punch that Jimmy hadn't died after all, thought Otis, returning to the refrigerator. Jimmy was worth a hundred big ones.
Even a cleanliness fanatic like Otis couldn't banish the smell of death from the refrigerator, scrub it with disinfectant and deodorant though he did. The stench, not of decay but of something subtler, surrounded Otis as he flipped the light switch to reveal the chamber's stainless steel interior. Oh, man, Jimmy had made a regular mess of it! Torn paper bags were strewn everywhere, headless rat carcasses, stiff white hair, obscenely naked tails. And, behind the dozen rat bags, a couple of much bigger bags, torn up too. Sighing, Otis went to fetch more bags from a cupboard and began to make order out of Jimmy's chaos. The dead rats properly bagged again, he reached into the chilly chamber and pulled the first of the two big bags forward. It had been rent from top to bottom, most of its contents on full display.
Otis opened his mouth and screamed as shrilly as Jimmy, was still screaming when Cecil erupted out of the monkey room. Then, not seeming to notice Cecil, he turned and ran out of animal care, down the halls, into the foyer, out the entrance, legs opening and closing in a punishing run down Eleventh Street to his home on the second floor of a shabby three-family house.
Celeste Green was having coffee with her nephew when Otis burst into the kitchen; they leaped to their feet, Wesley's passionate diatribe about Whitey's crimes forgotten. Celeste went for the smelling salts while Wesley put Otis on a chair. Back with the bottle, she pushed Wesley roughly out of her way.
"You know your trouble, Wes? You always in the way! You didn't get in Otis's way all the time, he wouldn't call you a good for nothin' kid! Otis! Otis, honey, wake up!"
Otis's skin had faded from a warm deep brown to a pasty grey that didn't improve when the ammoniac vapors were jammed under his nose, but he came around, jerked his head away.
"What is it? What's the matter?" Wesley was asking.
"A piece of woman," Otis whispered.
"A what?" sharply from Celeste.
"A piece of woman. In the fridge at work with the dead rats. A pussy and a belly." He began to shake.
Wesley asked the only question that mattered to him. "Was she a white woman or a black woman?"
"Don't bother him with that, Wes!" Celeste cried.
"Not black," Otis said, hands going to his chest. "But not white neither. Colored," he added, slipped forward off the chair and fell to the floor.
"Call an ambulance! Go on, Wes, call an ambulance!"
Which came very quickly, due to two fortunate facts: one, that the Holloman Hospital was just around the corner, and the other, that business was slack this hour of morning. Still very much alive, Otis Green was put into the ambulance with his wife crouched beside him; the apartment was left to Wesley le Clerc.
He didn't linger there, not with news like this. Mohammed el Nesr lived at 18 Fifteenth Street, and he had to be told. A piece of woman! Not black, but not white either. Colored. That meant black to Wesley, as it did to all the members of Mohammed's Black Brigade. Time that Whitey was called to account for two hundred years and more of oppression, of treating black people as second-rate citizens, even as beasts without immortal souls.
When he'd gotten out of prison in Louisiana he'd decided to come north to Tante Celeste in Connecticut. He yearned to make a reputation as a black man who mattered, and that was easier to do in a part of the nation less prone than Louisiana to throw blacks in jail if they looked sideways. Connecticut was where Mohammed el Nesr and his Black Brigade hung out. Mohammed was educated, had a doctorate in law he knew his rights! But for reasons that Wesley saw every day when he looked in a mirror, Mohammed el Nesr had dismissed Wesley as worthless. A plantation black, a nobody nothing. Which hadn't dampened Wesley's ardor; he intended to prove himself in Holloman, Connecticut! So much so that one day Mohammed would look up to him, Wesley le Clerc, plantation black.
Cecil Potter had soon discovered what sent Otis screeching out of animal care, but he wasn't a panicky man. He did not touch the contents of the refrigerator. Nor did he call the cops. He picked up the phone and dialed the Prof's extension, knowing full well that the Prof would be in his office, even at this hour. His only peace happened early in the mornings, he always said. But not, thought Cecil, this morning.
"It's a sad case," said Lieutenant Carmine Delmonico to his uniformed colleague and nominal superior, Captain Danny Marciano. "With no other relatives we can find, the kids will have to go into the system."
"You're sure he did it?"
"Positive. The poor guy tried to make it look like some stranger busted in, but there's his wife and her lover in the bed and her lover's cut up some but she's mincemeat he did it. My bet is that he'll confess later today voluntarily."
Marciano rose to his feet. "Then let's get some breakfast."
His phone rang; Marciano wriggled his brows at Carmine and picked up. Within three seconds the police captain had stiffened, lost all contentment. He mouthed "Silvestri!" at Carmine and commenced a series of nods. "Sure, John. I'll start Carmine now and get Patsy there as soon as I can."
"Big trouble. Silvestri's just had a call from the head of the Hug Professor Robert Smith. They've found part of a female body in their dead animal refrigerator."
Sergeants Corey Marshall and Abe Goldberg were breakfasting at Malvolio's, the diner the cops used because it was next door to headquarters in the County Services building on Cedar Street. Carmine didn't bother walking in; he rapped his knuckles on the glass in front of the booth where Abe and Corey were washing down hotcakes and maple syrup with big mugs of coffee. Lucky stiffs, he thought. They get to eat, I get to give my report to Danny, now I don't get to eat. Seniority's a pain in the ass.
The car Carmine regarded as his own (it was really a Holloman Police Department unmarked) was a Ford Fairlane with a souped-up V-8 engine and cop springs and shocks. If the three of them were in it, Abe always drove, Corey rode shotgun, and Carmine spread himself and his papers in the back. Telling Corey and Abe took half a minute, the trip from Cedar Street to the Hug less than five.
Holloman lay about halfway up the Connecticut coast, its spacious harbor looking across the Sound to Long Island. Founded by dissenting Puritans in 1632, it had always prospered, and not only because of the numerous factories that lay on its outskirts as well as up the Pequot River. A good proportion of its 150,000 people were connected in some way to Chubb University, an Ivy League institution that admitted itself inferior to none, even Harvard and Princeton. Town and Gown were inextricably intertwined.
Chubb's main campus lay around three sides of the big Green, its early colonial Georgian and nineteenth-century gothic buildings joined by some startlingly modern edifices tolerated only because of the august architectural names associated with each; but there was also Science Hill to the east, where the science campus was located in square towers of dark brick and plate glass, and, way across town to the west, the Chubb Medical School.
Because medical schools grew up alongside hospitals, by 1965 they tended to be situated in the worst part of any city; in this respect Holloman was no different. The Chubb Medical School and the Holloman Hospital straggled down Oak Street on the southern border of the larger of Holloman's two black ghettoes, called the Hollow because it lay in a hollow that had once been a swamp. To compound the health care woes, in 1960 the oil reservoirs of East Holloman were relocated at the end of Oak Street on waste ground between I-95 and the harbor.
The Hughlings Jackson Center for Neurological Research sat on Oak Street right opposite the Shane-Driver medical student apartments, 100 for 100 students. Next to the Shane-Driver was the Parkinson Pavilion for medical research. It faced the Hug's neighbor, the Holloman Hospital, a twelve-storey pile that had been rebuilt in 1950, the same year that saw the Hug go up.
"Why do they call it the Hug?" Corey asked as the Ford swung into the temporary road that bisected a gigantic parking lot.
"First three letters of Hughlings, I guess," said Carmine.
"Hug? It's got no dignity. Why not the first four letters? Then it'd be the Hugh."
"Ask Professor Smith," said Carmine, eyeing their destination.
The Hug was a shorter, smaller twin of the Burke Biology Tower and the Susskind Science Tower cross-campus on Science Hill; a baldly square, squat pile of dark brick with plenty of big plate-glass windows. It sat in three acres of what had used to be slum dwellings, demolished to make way for this monument perpetuating the name of a mystery man who had had absolutely nothing to do with its genesis. Who on earth was this Hughlings Jackson? A question all of Holloman asked. By rights the Hug should have been named after its donor, the enormously wealthy, late Mr. William Parson.
Having no gate key to the parking lot, Abe put the Ford on Oak Street right outside the building. Which had no entrance onto Oak Street; the three men tramped down a gravel path along the north side to a single glass door, where a very tall woman was waiting for them.
It's like a child's building block in the middle of a huge room, Carmine thought; three acres is a lot of land for something only a hundred feet per side. And shit, she's holding a clipboard. Office, not medical. His mind automatically registered the physical details of every person who swam into his piece of the human sea, so it was busy as she drew closer: six-three in bare feet, early thirties, navy pant suit on the baggy side, flat lace-up shoes, mouse-brown hair, a face with a biggish nose and a prominent chin. She'd never have made Miss Holloman ten years ago, let alone Miss Connecticut. Once he halted in front of her, however, he noted that she had very fine, interesting eyes the color of thick ice, which he had always found beautiful.
"Sergeants Marshall and Goldberg. I'm Lieutenant Carmine Delmonico," he said curtly.
"Desdemona Dupre, the business manager," she said as she took them into a tiny foyer, apparently only there to accommodate two elevators. But instead of pressing the UP button, she opened a door in the opposite wall and led them into a wide corridor.
"This is our first floor, which contains the animal care facilities and the workshops," she said, her accent placing her as someone from the other side of the Atlantic. Turning a corner put them in another hall. She pointed to a pair of doors farther down. "There you are, animal care."
"Thanks," said Carmine. "We'll take it from here. Please wait for me back at the elevators."
Her brows rose, but she turned on her heel and disappeared without comment.
Carmine found himself inside a very large room lined with cupboards and bins. Tall racks of clean cages big enough to take a cat or dog stood in neat rows in an area fronting a service elevator many times the size of the two in the foyer. Other racks held plastic boxes topped with wire grids. The room smelled good, pungent like a pine forest, with only the faintest hint of something less pleasant below it.
Cecil Potter was a fine-looking man, tall, slender, very well kept in his pressed white boiler suit and canvas bootees. His eyes, Carmine fancied, smiled a lot, though they were not smiling now.
One of Carmine's most important policies in this year of busing turmoil was that the black people he met in the course of his job or social life be treated courteously; he held out his hand, shook Cecil's firmly, performed the introductions without barking them or looking rushed. Corey and Abe were his men through thick and thin, they followed suit with the same courtesy.
"It's here," said Cecil, moving to a closed stainless steel door with a snap-lock handle. "I didn't touch a thing, just shut the door." He hesitated, decided to risk it. "Uh, Lieutenant, do you mind if I get back to my babies?"
"The monkeys. Macaques. Rhesus mean anything to you? Well, that's them. They in there, an' very upset. Jimmy won't lay off telling them where he been, an' they very upset."
"The monkey Dr. Chandra thought was dead, an' put in a bag in the fridge last night. Jimmy really found her tore the place apart when he woke up in the dark freezing his buns off. When Otis he my assistant as well as the handyman went to empty the fridge, Jimmy came outta there screeching and yelling. Then Otis found her, an' he was outta here screeching worse than Jimmy. I looked, an' called the Prof. I guess the Prof called you."
"Where's Otis now?" Carmine asked.
"Knowing Otis, he run home to Celeste. She his mama as well as his wife."
They were gloved now; Abe wheeled the bin away from the door and Carmine opened it as Cecil, already crooning and clucking, went into the monkey room.
Of the two big bags, one still lay at the back of the chamber. The other, rent from where the top folded over clear to the bottom, had exposed the lower half of a female torso. When Carmine noted its size and its lack of pubic hair his heart sank a prepubescent child? Oh, please, not that! He made no movement to touch a thing, just leaned his shoulders against the wall.
"We wait for Patrick," he said.
"I never smelled a smell like it dead, but not decomposing," said Abe, dying for a cigarette.
"Abe, go find Mrs. Dupre and tell her she can go upstairs as soon as the uniforms arrive," Carmine said, knowing that expression well. "Post them on all the entrances and emergency exits." Then, alone with Corey, he rolled his eyes. "Why in there?" he asked.
Copyright ©2006 by Colleen McCullough
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Actually I wanted to give this book 3 1/2 stars.. The book includes a lot of characters and sometimes it makes it hard to know who is who however the main characters are easy to follow and identify..As far as the story goes there are not enough clues left for the reader to make assumptions who might be the killer therefore I found my self fast pacing/reading through the pages to get to the end..The end is ok and it comes from something unexpected.. Overall its a good book that I want to rate as 3.5 stars instead of 4.0..
Finally a great intellectual thriller. On, Off takes place in the 60's, before we knew about DNA and crimes had to be solved cerebrally. This book grabs hold from the very beginning and does not let go until the final page. What a surprise ending. And to have a detective on the case that doesn't come with a lot of baggage is so refreshing. I hope Miss McCollough is busy on her next thriller.
When I first heard that Colleen McCullough was writing a mystery novel, I had my doubts that she could pull it off. If found the first half chapter a little slow, but I soon found myself wrapped into the story and characters. McCullough breathed some surprisingly fresh air into a genre that had become tired to me along time ago. All the other protagonists in this genre are brilliant detectives who are held back by everything in their lives. They are usually divorced, bitterly so, and hung up on that fact. Then, they have no help from their colleagues and superiors. Their superiors usually try to hold them back at every turn and their colleagues are usually inept at every turn. McCullough brought us a character who is divorced, yet has grown from the situation and harbors no bitter feelings. Carmine actually has a supportive cast around him and is very likeable. I would like to see McCullough revisit the genre after a strong first showing. McCullough fans should be drooling now over the news that she is returning to the MASTERS OF ROME series now to write a 7th and final volume (ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA) in the series after she prematurely ended it. After she leaves Rome for a final time, I am anxious to see what other genres she contributes to.
In 1965 in Holloman, Connecticut, Chubb University Professor Robert Smith calls Police Captain Danny Marciano to inform the cop that the Hughlings Jackson Center for Neurological Research assistants have found part of a body of a woman in their dead animal refrigerator. Danny assigns his best detective, Lieutenant Carmine Delmonico to lead the investigation at Hughlings Jackson Center affectionately known by the research staff as the Hug. Having just come off of solving a domestic double homicide, Carmine knows he will miss breakfast unlike his two Sergeants, Corey Marshall and Abe Goldberg since they ate already. --- Carmine, Corey, and Abe head to the Hug to meticulously search for clues left behind by an apparently vicious killer, but find little evidence left behind by the clever culprit. As the cops keep digging, Carmine learns of other recent victims of mixed racial females by a rapist-killer who severs the heads of his victims probably as some form of a trophy. As he dubs his target as being the ¿Ghost' because he leaves nothing remotely identifying who he is, the media goes on 'the Connecticut Monster' frenzy. --- ON, OFF is always on target as a terrific 1960s police procedural that showcases an investigation into a serial killer at a time when the forensic information database age was at best in diapers. The background, for instance the outage in the Black communities over the profile of the targets adds a sense of the era. Carmine is a fabulous lead character struggling with an impossible case that he begins to believe has historical roots while the killer seems frighteningly real and particularly vicious. Colleen McCullough provides a superb historical serial killer thriller. --- Harriet Klausner
I usually have clue what happens in the end but not this time. Was a great read.
People always get what they deserve. I don’t know what it is about serial killer mysteries, but they intrigue me to no end. And this is a great one. I’ve been a fan of McCullough ever since I was turned onto her Masters of Rome series which chronicle the demise of the Roman Republic, highly recommended by the way. She’s a great writer, and really knows how to bring characters and places to vivid life. I’m crossing my fingers that she will write a western one day. This particular story takes place in Connecticut in 1965, at a time before serial killers were labeled as such. The Detective on the case has his hands full trying to deal with this new type of criminal. Fans of the movie Zodiac will love soaking up every detail. It’s a fascinating police procedural which had me devouring every scene. To my detriment there are a ton of characters to keep track of, but I never got irreversibly lost. And what a great ending! I look forward to the sequels.
I've read quite a few of her other books, but nothing recent until this. There were way too many characters and her attempt to build the characters was chopped and spotty, leaving it confused with very little direction. Her main character, Delmonico, was the only one worthy of emulation and bonding. Even the heroin (so to speak), Desdamona, was not believable and in fact suspect until the very end. She dragged out the plot, adding one murder after another far too long with no crescendo. It didn't all come together until the last two chapters which seemed like she just got the idea, "I better finish this"--I felt cheated and actually felt like I wasted my time by completing it. Too bad-I loved "The Thornbirds" and "Tim". I don't think I'll get any more of her recent ones.
Colleen McCullough continues to capitvate the reader with her syle and characters. I read the Thornbirds some 35 years ago and still remember the characters and the story line. On/Off will stay with you for a long time to come. You must be able to follow a multi faceted character line to keep up with this one but it's definitely one that I'll keep in my permanent library.
It took me a while to get into the book, but I ended up really enjoying it. One of the few books that when it ended I was schocked.
The beginning is very original and alluring but the greatest fault is, that I wasn't interested to know who the murderer was,which seems to me a must for thrillers, isn't it? The surprising end is earlier already hinted at but leaves the reader lost in a void of psychological conviction...And as for the characters, one needs a constant Who is Who at hand.The satirical description of the neurological institute,though, is convincing as well as the uproar against racisme, although the latter unfortunately doesn't really fit in. I don't think Caesar's Women would've liked this book.
I kept expecting great things from this author and hoped my expectations would be met right up to the last page. I think she used a cheap trick to keep the reader reading, and I was not impressed when I finished this book. I am an avid mystery and thriller reader, and this is the worst book I have read in a very long time. I am just glad I borrowed it from the library rather than paying money for it.
What the frig is On, Off? Could not find any clue to the phrase even on the net. And its repetition a dozen times at the end is, to put it mildly, is irritating. The story did not need so many murders to drive home the point. She brought in the Black Brigade for no ostensible reason. Colleen has a long way to go in murder mysteries.