Colleen McCullough has produced a fascinating and labyrinthine double mystery in SINS OF THE FLESH. Several back stories lead readers on a tangled journey through lies, betrayals, jealousies and character studies both in the present and in the far past.
The place is Holloman, Connecticut, where the Holloway Institute for the Criminally Insane is located and where its director, Jess Wainfleet, basks in the knowledge that her "experiment," Walter Jenkins, is cured. Walter was a serial killer with a whole slew of murders to his name. Jess has worked on Walter's brain to retrain it and operated on it to change his personality. She is so sure of her success that she has him moved from the asylum where the "maniacs" are and gives him a room in IH while also making him her assistant. He knows all of her secrets, and the files she believes to be private are easily broken into and read by him.
What Jess refuses to understand is that no one at the edge that Walter lived could be cured. Nevertheless, she continues with her work and feels that Walter is her God. She believes she has done the impossible --- created a fine young man out of the monster he was.
"Colleen McCullough has produced a fascinating and labyrinthine double mystery in SINS OF THE FLESH. Several back stories lead readers on a tangled journey through lies, betrayals, jealousies and character studies both in the present and in the far past."
Readers are soon informed that several men have disappeared and turned up dead. The police photographer produces a series of portraits in oil that are easier to identify than the flat pictures in use. As the narrative unfolds, Lieutenant Abe Goldberg makes a visit to a glorious house (Busquash Manor) to ask some questions about the missing men. They are called the "John Does" by the cop shop. As soon as he shows the shots to the two men who live and work in the house, Rha Tanais ("nee Herbert Ramsbottom") and Rufus Ingham ("nee Antonio Carantonio IV") get very excited and say that of course they know all of these men. Both are in and of the arts --- Tanais is a very important clothing designer, and Rufus is a playwright.
The other story is under the direction of Sergeant Delia Carstairs, an astute and devoted cop. The case is called "The Shadow Women" and involves several women who have disappeared over a period of years --- one a year. Nothing, not even identification, was ever found of them, not so different from the series of John Does. Ironically, Delia has no female friends, so when an opportunity arises for her to meet and have lunch with Jess and Ivy Ramsbottom, she jumps at the chance. While laughing and having a good old time, Delia and Jess discover that they live right around the corner from each other. Delia is delighted and has a great afternoon. She senses that these ladies will become fast friends for her. But as Jess lives in a bubble of self-delusion, Ivy isn't much more of a good choice for a friend.
As the story further unfolds, readers will find themselves wondering how the clues and red herrings may have helped them solve the mysteries. Towards the end, Commissioner John Silvestri looks over some of his crew and sees no humor among them: “This has been a spooky and horrible case from start to finish, guys, not to mention two cases rolled in one --- kinda. As my Aunt Annunziata used to say, 'The sins of the flesh are the hardest to be rid of.'"
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on November 27, 2013