Tuesday, January 1, 2008

On, Off: A Novel by Colleen McCullough. A serial killer terrorizes Connecticut in the turbulent 1960's.

Colleen McCullough is the celebrated author of The Thorn Birds (Modern Classics), a trained neurophysiologist, a native Australian, and a current sufferer of macular degeneration; she wrote a crime novel, published in the U.S. in 2006, called On, Off that incorporates many elements of her life experiences. Macular degeneration is a disease that can lead to blindness, and it plays an important role in this novel, as does neurophysiology. Unfortunately, in spite of my hopeful approach to this story, I can't recommend On, Off without deep reservations.

Overall, On, Off is mostly well crafted, though there are too many side-stories, some of which tantalize and then go nowhere; in some cases, these appear to be vestigial plot fragments from early manuscripts rather than "legitimate" red herrings (take the opening sequence with Jimmy, for example). Could it be that that such an international star of popular fiction has become immune or impervious (or indifferent) to good editing?

The storyline takes place during the height of racial unrest in the 1960s, and the physical setting is the State of Connecticut. The major location is a small University town and the neurophysiology institute, known by all as "The Hug", that is attached to the local medical school. There is plenty of technical detail about brain research to satisfy the curious, though how germane this is to the final outcome is debatable.

We are in serial killer territory here, so one shouldn't expect a pleasant ride. However, there are many appealing aspects to the story, particularly the personality of local police lieutenant Carmine Delmonico and his struggle, aided by a at least one clever team member, to catch a killer first dubbed "The Connecticut Monster" but later called "The Ghost" because of an uncanny ability to leave no physical evidence at any of the crime scenes. Delmonico is not a stereotypical 60's cop figure for typical crime fiction: he is open-minded, cultured, incorruptible, has a respect for civil rights, is not racially prejudiced, and likes his women with brains. So far, so good (and then some!).

However, we are treated to a fairly stock set of academic characters associated with The Hug, and though these characters come to life now and again, they also blend together to some extent as the story progresses. They exemplify academic administration, wealthy donors, and different branches of neurophysiology, from clinical to pure research. Together, the characters operate in a volatile, hot-house environment where jealousy, ambition, egos and resentment are all cultivated in an unhealthy way. So far, OK.

The most serious problem I have with this book is the nature of the crimes themselves. It is not, apparently, enough that beautiful 16-year old girls of upstanding character and mixed racial origins are abducted, raped, tortured, murdered, decapitated and otherwise chopped to pieces (the order of these acts is not always as stated). This would leave us in a highly unpleasant realm, but would not be out of the ordinary for hard-boiled crime fiction. However, I found that the crimes themselves went far beyond terrible, and really exceeded what I could stomach. The violence, sadism and torture that we learn of, mainly through autopsies, is unnecessarily graphic even in a pathology report and far surpasses what is needed to depict "merely" brutal crimes.

So, while there are elements of suspense for a reader to enjoy, and while there are elements of interest when Carmine attempts to match wits with the Ghost (or is it the Ghosts?), I found it completely impossible to derive any pleasure from reading this book whenever the crimes themselves. or their memory, intruded on the story. I would have to say that the level of sadism and sociopathic behavior far exceed that of, say, Hannibal Lector.

If you can handle reading about these terrible crimes against children and are willing to overlook some gaping holes and cul de sacs in the plot, you might enjoy On, Off. Some of book rises above these shortcomings, but not enough for me. I recommend that you give this one a pass and simply move on. Read Gary Disher, Cara Black, Michael Connelly, Henning Mankell, Ian Rankin and many others from the range of detective fiction and fiction noir who better balance the scales of evil or depravity against opposition, if not necessarily opposites, offered by police and private detectives . These authors also take better care crafting their plots than the esteemed Ms. McCullough did for On, Off.

Lost comments recovered (reverse chronological order):

  • James Bashkin
Thanks, Patricia. I feel I can handle books that are realistic and dark as long as everything works together as part of the story, but when exploitation is involved, when the violence is too severe and unnecessary, I find it troublesome. It isn't that I want to censor the work, I just wish I hadn't read it. And it was a shame because there was a better story waiting to be told using some of the great characters that did appear, but this story didn't turn out great at all. Far from it. I almost never write negative reviews, but I made an exception here. I appreciate your taking the time to read and offer feedback. Best wishes, Jim

  • Patricia - Spiritual
Thanks for sharing this. It definitely isn't my kind of book. I don't like graphic. We don't need to feed into the violence of the world by what we read or write.

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  1. All I can say is thank you. Thanks for NOT recommending this book. And thanks FOR joining us for the blog carnival against child abuse. Glad to have you aboard! (I maintain the carnival.)

  2. I tried to leave a comment thanking you for your remarks before, but my comment system is acting up and my words seem to have disappeared. So, Thanks, and thanks for all of your work!

  3. You might add Gunnar Staalesen's The Writing on the Wall to those crime novels that put an interesting spin on this unpalatable subject.

    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  4. i read the book in one night flat and i swear it left my hands trembling. it is a very disturbing book, the kinds that would scare and haunt you for days! and after getting thru almost 600 pages of gruesome descriptions n mental images, it still leaves you wondering in the end abt who EXACTLY did what! the last 2-3 pages of the book was pure torture - it gave me the heeby-jeebies!!

  5. Thanks for the comment, Munu. I agree that the book was extremely scary and haunting... a little too haunting, for me, in fact. I think I have a pretty good feel for who did what, although it took the end of the book to bring me to that point (and I could be wrong).

    I really don't have a problem with gruesome descriptions, as long as they fit the narrative, and these did. However, the fact that the gruesome images involved children in a horrific and sexually-explicit way was, to me, far over the top. If children were to be the victims, a different approach was needed, at least for me. I felt that it would have been entirely possible to write this story without bringing us into the lives of the wonderful young girls and their families while nearly simultaneously subjecting the victims, their families and the reader to crimes that I can't even mention here. I felt that the characters were exploited and the very idea of child abuse was exploited- I felt exploited. Clearly, this is a very personal opinion on my part. I don't hold anyone else to it, but I felt compelled to warn readers about how sick this book made me feel.

    In my view, the story could have been perfectly effective without the terribly detailed and explicit crimes against young girls. I read a lot of gritty crime fiction, and am not squeamish about many subjects. I'm not against writing about crimes against children, either (it is important to do so, but to do so in a way that doesn't exploit the fictional children so the the book itself is vile, in addition to the crimes). To write about such crimes in the context of "mere entertainment" was offensive to me, yet this book, for all of its promising horror and mystery, never rose above the tawdry. The writing and plot, in spite of being very clever in parts, were really quite pedestrian and flawed in many places. In fact, I found the writing to be lazy. For example, the academic characters were mostly two-dimensional and cliched, as was the whole University atmosphere. The use of such violent images seemed to be another example of authorial laziness, substituting shock value for substance.

    In fact, for an author who simply wanted to "do a mystery," this really seemed to me to be uneven, poorly edited, and done in poor taste.

    So, I don't dispute the powerful horror of the book's ending, but I do dispute the need for making the crimes both against children and so horribly explicit. The crimes could have been bad enough to get the point across without going to these extreme lengths (in my opinion). A good book could have been made from the outline of this story, but the author failed, in my view.

    Peter, from Detectives beyond borders (comment and blog address above) has great taste, and you might want to follow his suggestion...

    Thanks again for stopping by and offering your opinion. I agree with you on many points, but I cannot recommend this book.

    Best wishes.