Since this hardcover set covers three books, I'll have to chain up my reviews of each book. It's a triplicious take on a trilogy!
MR. MONK AND THE TWO ASSISTANTS
I'm worried about Natalie. Maybe the job of taking care of Monk, the obsessive-compulsive detective, is getting to be too much for her. On call 24/7, wipes at the ready and always prepared to talk her boss down from the ledge of his mania for order, whether he's trying to get a street full of parked cars equally spaced, or, as in the latest edition of his adventures, putting the Berlin Wall back together, bit by rubbley bit.
Writers of TV series tie-in books face a unique challenge. They have to meet fans' expectations while generating enough story that could fill two or three hour-long shows. But there are benefits from the novel format. A novel, for example, doesn't demand four acts, each the same length and ending in a cliffhanger just before the commercial.
The careful tie-in writer can even take advantage of real-life events behind the TV series, as Lee Goldberg did in "Mr. Monk and the Two Assistants," the fourth book in the series. For the first couple of seasons, Monk -- the obsessive-compulsive consulting detective for the San Francisco Police Department -- was assisted by Sharona Fleming, who acted as nurse, counselor and caretaker of Monk's Handiwipes. Because of a contract dispute, the actress playing her was replaced and a new assistant, Natalie Teeger, was created. This caused a debate among "Monk" fans, in intensity somewhere below "Kirk vs. Picard" but well above "Dick York's Darrin vs. Dick Sargent's Darrin."
That substitution forms the spine of "Two Assistants." Sharona left Monk to reconcile with her husband, who she believed was trying to reform, but she dumps him after he is charged with killing a woman in her home. Monk, being Monk, is thrilled at having two assistants. Natalie, being a single mother, is less thrilled at having her salary cut in half. Rather than lose her job, she tries to get Monk to investigate.
Sharona resents Natalie's meddling, and their conflict is played out against a series of murder investigations that showcase Monk's abilities as an investigator. These are old-school cases, relying on spotting the clues that don't add up, and Goldberg concocts several clever solutions that reflects on Monk's idiosyncratic view of the world.
Goldberg also gets to have fun with mystery writers when best-selling author Ian Ludlow is brought in to consult on a case. Genre fans can wonder if parts of Ludlow was built from James Patterson's multiple-books-a-year publishing schedule and Joe Konrath's book signing sprees. As a bookseller says about Ludlow's series featuring detective Marshak: "an unsigned Marshak is harder to find and more valuable than a signed one."
Goldberg also takes shots at writers, their plots and even their author photos, but they exhibit a sweetness of temperament and are not meant to wound.
Despite all the goings-on, Monk remains a commanding character, whether captivated by a poster of perfectly sized teeth at the orthodontist, shocked at the beach by the presence of nudist sunbathers or visiting Los Angeles wearing a gas mask. And while the murder investigation takes some deeply odd turns, Goldberg's intricate plotting ensures that the cases are wrapped up in a way that would meet the approval of this obsessive-compulsive detective, as well as his many fans.
MR. MONK GOES TO GERMANY
In "Mr. Monk Goes to Germany," the sixth book based on the USA Network show, Monk's thrown into a panic when his psychologist takes the week off to attend a conference Germany. So, hopped up on Dioxynl, an experiment drug that suppresses his OCD and turns him into Goodtime Charlie, Monk takes to the skies, with Natalie at his beck and call. What he finds there, in addition to one very surprised and appalled doctor, is a confrontation with a six-fingered man who may be responsible for his wife's death.
Those who follow Lee Goldberg's life on his blog know that he spent time in Germany filming a TV show, so it's natural he'd set his next Monk book there. And he uses his experiences well, weaving in the details you'd pick up if you were a tourist. It's those little touches that give the story flavor, such as the description of an inn that was built in the 1400s, or describing the free magazines, including Playboy, that can be picked up at German airports.
As for the mystery, it is competently set up and sprung, but, really, the fun lies more in watching Monk at work, baffling his police partners and reacting to the chaos around him, whether its attempting to navigate the trails in the German forest or visiting an unusual resort for outcasts.
Which leads me back to Natalie. Maybe it was the travel. Maybe it was seeing Monk on the plane, high on Dioxynl, turning into a combination of a frat boy and lounge lizard, being asked to join the Mile High Club. But there were a couple of times here where she loses control on his behalf. Maybe she should see a shrink. I'm sure Monk could recommend a good one.
MR. MONK IS MISERABLE
When last we left Adrian Monk, San Francisco’s only OCD detective, in “Mr. Monk Goes to Germany,” he had just finished solving a murder and had been blackmailed by his assistant, Natalie Teeger, into visiting Paris for a vacation. Not surprisingly, this has left him as happy as a Republican in Washington.
Also not surprisingly, Natalie’s attempt at a vacation are thwarted by murders. A man drops dead on the flight from Germany to Paris. Then, while touring the underground bone yard in the City of Lights, Monk turns up a skull that wasn’t meant to be part of the exhibit.
The story gets stranger. The remains are identified as a San Francisco resident who fled ten years before after his Ponzi scheme fell apart. In Paris, he fell in with “Freegans” — people who live off the detritus of society — as a way of evading identification. Then, when the San Francisco connection brings over Monk’s co-workers, Captain Stottlemeyer his sidekick, Lt. Randy Disher, we learn that Disher’s song, “I Don’t Need A Badge,” has turned him into the Jerry Lewis of the underground music scene.
Lee Goldberg is a pro at writing TV shows, and his Monk books reflect that sensibility. Playing within the format, yet keeping it fresh and inventive, is a challenge. and Goldberg thinks two steps ahead of the reader’s expectations. He sets the story in Paris, but instead of Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, we’re treated to visits to the sewers, the aforementioned catacombs, a restaurant that serves food in the dark, and a climax that’s inspired by “The Phantom of the Opera.”
By narrating the stories from Natalie’s viewpoint, we also get insight into what it’s like to play the Watson to an irascible, pain-in-the-tucus genius. Whether accompanying Monk — in full hazmat suit — on a tour of the sewers, or marveling at his deductions from a meal served in total darkness, it’s no wonder that Natalie would need a vacation after her vacation.
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