Although I remember my mother being obsessed by “The Thorn Birds” miniseries on American television somewhere in my childhood, I’d never read a Colleen McCullough book before. I can’t say I was obsessed with it, but The Prodigal Son, set in 1969 Connecticut, was a good read that raised a number of issues still relevant today.
The book is part of a series focused on Carmine Delmonico, a captain in the Holloman, Connecticut, police department. Read as a standalone, though, it’s much more the story of Drs. Millie and Jim Hunter, married superstar scientists who have everything going for them except the fact that Millie is white and beautiful and Jim is black. I never felt confused by having missed three previous books in the series, except perhaps there were so many people to keep track of and every single one was new to me (the police, Carmine’s family, the Tunballs, the university people, etc.).
The prodigal son in the title is John Hall, whose mother took him from his father, the wealthy Max Tunball years ago and who has now found his biological father (he already has a wealthy adoptive father). At the beginning of the book, John returns from California to meet his father, his stepmother serves the proverbial fatted calf, and then someone murders him. Some homecoming.
Millie and Jim come into the picture immediately because the poison used to kill John was manufactured in Millie’s biochemistry lab, and on top of that the three have been friends for years. Carmine and his colleagues, most notably the chubby Brit female detective Delia, immediately suspect Jim because he knew about and had access to the poison in Millie’s lab. They’re convinced she can’t be involved because she reported the theft of the poison as soon as she realized it was missing — well, that and the fact that she’s related to Carmine and half of the rest of the Holloman police force. The mystery deepens when the new head of the Chubb University Press is killed with the same poison, making Jim an even more likely suspect because of his hatred of Jim’s new book.
The Sixties make a great setting because of the rapid social change at the time — Millie and Delia in nontraditional careers, Millie and Jim in a controversial relationship, the battles Jim faces as a smart, ambitious black man. There were times that I think McCullough got it wrong, referencing cable television news, for instance, which I don’t think was available for another 10 years, but for the most part I thought she effectively used the time and place to explore some of the challenges women and minorities in the 1960s United States faced. And perhaps the fact that Millie and Jim’s story doesn’t end well is a realistic reflection on that.
Many thanks to Alicia Samuel of Simon & Schuster for providing me with a review copy of Colleen McCullough’s The Prodigal Son.