The Prodigal Son by Colleen McCullough


A quick rundown… The fourth book in the Carmine Delmonico mysteries set in 1960s America involves a rare poison and many bodies. Who did it?

Strengths: Always a fascinating twist! Solving crimes before DNA and the internet was a fascinating, difficult job.

Weaknesses: The ending is rather open…

Why I read it: Ebook offered by Simon & Schuster, USA – thank you!

Pages: 322 (ebook)

Published: 2012

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Setting: Holloman, Connecticut, America

Rating: 8.5 out of 10


Reading The Prodigal Son and other books in the historical crime fiction Carmine Delmonico series, you would never guess that they are written by the same author as The Thorn Birds. Colleen McCullough proves once again that she’s a master of fiction with a wide ranging imagination in this book.

Although this is the fourth book in the series starring Carmine Delmonico, detective in Holloman, Connecticut, the books are easily read as stand-alone novels or out of order. (However, I would recommend all four books to you simply because of the chill down the spine McCullough leaves you with on the last line). These books are set in the 1960s, so the policing is done the ‘old-fashioned’ way without internet, mobile phones or DNA evidence. It provides a fascinating setting that relies on closely observed reactions and mannerisms of suspects, lateral thinking and the odd bit of luck.

Strangely enough for a crime fiction novel, Carmine is happily married detective with children. His wife, Desdemona, plays a supporting role as sounding board and a different view on the crime. In this novel, the crime is once again murder – but the murder weapon is rare. It’s the toxin from fugu (or puffer fish) and it was painstakingly extracted by one of the professors at Chubb university, Millie – who happens to be the daughter of the chief medical examiner. When multiple murders occur, several people stand to benefit from their deaths. Did someone steal Millie’s toxin or was the thief closer to home?

McCullough’s characterisation is also a strongpoint. While we see the return of old favourites like Carmine’s eccentrically dressed colleague, Delia, there are also many new characters to meet. There’s Millie and her husband Jim, Uda the strange servant and some unusual suspects. The subject of racism also comes up in this book, as Jim is a professor trying to be recognised for his ground-breaking work. The only problem is that he’s an African-American man in late 1960’s America. Could Jim have tired of the struggle for equality (which has seen him in hospital with deadly infections) and decided to remove the main man opposed to his book? Or is this a red herring?

The things that set McCullough’s murder mysteries apart is that they are not always concluded satisfactorily or that the ending is open enough to make you wonder if Carmine and his team really have succeeded. The latter can also be very frustrating if you want to see justice done! It is definitely a page turner though and McCullough will have you questions your suspicions for ‘whodunit’ throughout.

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