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by Colleen McCullough
HarperCollins, November 2010
416 pages
7.99 GBP
ISBN: 0007271867

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The "small city" of Holloman, Connecticut is rocked when no fewer than twelve murders are committed on the 3rd April 1967. The deaths range from those of an 18-month-old toddler to a 71-year-old widow; from the head of a massive engineering conglomerate, Cornucopia, to a well-known local prostitute. It is the task of Captain Carmine Delmonico, head of Serious Crime in Holloman, to find out whether or not the killings are linked and, if so, what possible motive there can have been. His task is not made any easier when the fact emerges that there is a spy operating at Cornucopia who has been passing valuable military secrets to the Russians. Carmine therefore also has to deal with the presence of the FBI, in the shape of the obnoxious Ted Kelly.

The best description of this book, and one which I rather enjoy using, is preposterous. I do not merely mean implausible: this would be, on the hand insufficient, if one were making any reference to the real world, and on the other untrue, since once one accepts the fantasy world in which the book is set the internal events are not implausible. It should be said that these events get more and more fantastic as the story progresses - there are attacks on Carmine's daughter and wife, and eventually an attempted assassination of every VIP in the town. No, preposterousness permeates every level of the book. The plot is preposterous, as will probably be fairly evident from the summary given above. The political backdrop is preposterous, with its stereotypical use of the Russians and its absurd portrayals of Communists. The historical setting is preposterous - the novel is set in 1967, is partially concerned with the Cold War, but makes no mention at all of Vietnam! The treatment of feminism is preposterous. These last few absurdities might be offensive were it not that they were, indeed, preposterous.

But I think heading the roll of preposterousness, although it is a near run thing, is the characterisation. Everyone here is a good guy or a bad guy. Carmine Delmonico himself is some kind of wish-fulfilment, which makes him intensely annoying and unsympathetic. At times the use of stereotyping becomes almost laughable, but it also makes characters so forgettable that I kept having to turn back to remind myself who was who. The good guys and bad guys battle it out and the good guys win. Despite the fact that it has a complicated plot this is probably more of a Western than a mystery. Carmine's domestic life with his beloved wife Desdemona lays on yet more cliché.

The only regret about any of this is that the opening scenario is a really compelling one; this could have been a really great plot. And to some extent, beneath all the silliness, it still is. The trouble is that the silliness diverts one away from the plot to such an extent that it becomes almost impossible to hang on to it. One becomes more and more frustrated and annoyed so that the solution and denouement are more wished-for as a means of ending the misery than for revealing the plot and whodunit.

So how to assess TOO MANY MURDERS? If one presumes that the whole book is not some extended joke and treats it seriously, then it needs to be said that the characterisation is extremely poor, the sociology and psychology near laughable, the history and politics lamentable. But there is a fine opening, a plot of considerable promise which is partially fulfilled (because despite what I have said the solution to the 12 murders is well worked-out), and a narrative which carries the reader along with competence. McCullough is a writer of long experience (including THE THORN BIRDS of course) and you can see this in her story-telling. However overall these plusses do not outweigh the negatives and I come back to my original description: this book is preposterous. And very definitely not preposterously good! There are two types of people who would like this book. The first are dyed-in-the-wool right wing ideologues: I can imagine TOO MANY MURDERS would sit snugly in Sarah Palin's bookcase. The second are seekers of the preposterously bad, for whom this might count as a rare find.

§ Nick Hay lives in Birmingham, UK where he spends a lot of his time reading mysteries (and trying to write about them).

Reviewed by Nick Hay, September 2010

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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