Following The Prodigal Son, part of a series featuring Captain Carmine Delmonico and his cohorts in the ’60s college town of Holloman, Connecticut, Sins of the Flesh focuses on two cases, one involving missing women, the other murdered men.
First, the Shadow Women, a case handed off to the badly dressed British detective Delia Carstairs, who evidently has a knack for putting together odd bits of evidence to form a theory. (You wouldn’t know she has a knack based on this book, but I can’t get into that without ruining the plot.) It seems that every January for the past several years a woman rents an apartment and then about 6 months later disappears. None of them had any friends, or made any during the 6 months, or did anything to make an impression on anyone. In fact, only their landlords reported them missing when they stopped paying rent.
The other case involves the starvation murders of a series of young men. They can’t be identified and don’t seem to match with any reported missing persons. Carmine begins by commissioning the department’s new artist to paint portraits of the men, at which point it becomes obvious that they’re all somewhat similar in appearance, and it seems that a serial killer must be at work. The case takes a major step forward when Delia suggests showing the portraits to her new friends, Rha and Rufus, two openly gay men who run a theater in the manor house they inherited following a twisted family history too torturous to describe here.
Rha and Rufus instantly recognize all of the young men. They’d all been living and working in the manor at some point, but neither they nor the police can figure out what happened to them, or why.
In the meantime, there’s another storyline involving Delia’s friend Jess, who’s a psychiatrist in a nearby correction facility. Jess has taken a murderous monster, Walter Jenkins, a man so horrible he couldn’t be held in any ordinary prison, and through operations and therapy created a new, safe and calm Walter, a man so tame that she thinks he could eventually be released. But Jess doesn’t know that Walter has figured out how to let himself out at will. Much less what he does when he’s out.
The story, I hope you can tell, is very tangled, and yet McCullough tells it in a way that it all makes sense. I came into this series midway, but now that I’ve read two of the books I find it much easier to keep the main characters (Carmine’s colleagues and family members) straight, which means adding the new (Delia’s friends, the psych/corrections people) wasn’t so difficult this time. The plot is also very twisted, with some sick puppy action involving sexual abuse and lobotomies in addition to the two police investigations, but McCullough tends not to dwell on that.
I didn’t get as much feel for the tensions of the ’60s as I did in the previous book, which is unfortunate; I suppose it came through most in the treatment of the gay couple by Holloman’s various citizens. However, the plot and characters stand on their own, and I enjoyed Sins of the Flesh as much as The Prodigal Son.
Many thanks to the publicists at Simon & Schuster for sending me an advance review copy of Colleen McCullough’s Sins of the Flesh.