Wednesday, October 15, 2008

BOOKS: Monk, Books 1, 2 and 3

I have the five Monk books by Lee Goldberg. I have read the first three, will heartily recommend the fourth and fifth unread and encourage you to think about the sixth as a Christmas present for anyone you know who's a reader and enjoys light comedic mysteries. I fall into that category, hint, hint, if any family member is reading this and has the upcoming Monk Goes to Germany on my assigned gift list.

The reason I've only read the first three books is my new-found determination not to ruin a good thing and read exclusively one author and one character to the point of getting tired of both. I LIKE Adrian Monk, the latter-day Sherlock that stars in the eponymous USA Networks TV show. Tony Shalhoub has won a shelf full of awards for the obsessive-compulsive disorder plagued detective who's perpetually solving crimes despite himself. The sharp-eyed detective is so wracked by OCD that he can barely survive in the world, but with the help of big-hearted assistant Natalie Teeger (played by Traylor Howard on TV), he does survive and actually, to a certain extent, thrives.

Goldberg makes a winning choice to write the books from Natalie's point of view, rather than trying to take a reader through the escher-like labrynth of Monk's mind. That way lies madness, afterall. Natalie, on the other hand, allows Goldberg to expand Monk beyond the single obvious mystery of the week. Most of the background is known to veteran viewers of the Monk show, in the midst of its seventh season break. But little tidbits about a woman clinging to her own family's survival, one day at a time, help flesh out the character. Howard's portrayal of Natalie is adorable. Goldberg's writing makes her more so.

I skipped the first book in the series because I mistakenly believed the novel was just an expansion of the fifth season TV episode, Monk Can't See A Thing, which Goldberg co-wrote. I read Goldberg's blog and somehow formed the wrong impression that it wasn't a completely separate novel, that just shared the same setting as the TV show. I did end up reading it and enjoying it. Monk has to temporarily move in with Natalie and her tween-aged daughter Julie. The distraction allows Monk to miss some obvious clues that even I spotted along the way. Still, in the end, Monk pulls out all the stops in cornering the book's main culprit, while solving something between 10 and 20 other murders along the way. All of those were of the "Oh by the way, your killer is ..." variety. Including the last one, that disposed of one of the many intriguingly-named minor characters.

Goldberg does have a way with names. Having read more than my share of Perry Mason and The Shadow novels over the years, I gather he has a similar reading background.

Monk gets out of his San Francisco base for the second book in the series (and the first I read), Monk Goes to Hawaii. Goldberg obviously relished his time researching Hawaii for the book, as it becomes quite the travelog at times. While Monk solves a few issues for the local police, Detective Keal0ha doing a good job standing in for SF Captain Stottlemyre, the main mystery involves catching and convicting a fake TV Psychic. THAT payoff comes back in San Francisco. It produces a very satisfying conclusion, especially after the psychic had such a fun time dredging up old memories for both Monk and Natalie.

The central conceit of the Monk TV series is that Adrian Monk was a functioning, successful policeman until the death of his wife. After her murder, Monk fell apart, finding only strict order as the way to avoid further descent into madness. Unfortunately, letting his life-long OCD rise to the forefront cost him his badge. In turn, he needed an assistant/nurse/babysitter to let him at least use those amazing deductive skills that survived his breakdown. In the TV series, Bitty Schram played the original assistant, Sharona. Schram played the part with equal parts Jersey sass and as a compassionate nurse. I do miss Sharona, her mini-skirts and her attitude, but have grown to appreciate Natalie, who was widowed when her husband Mitch dies in the war, all the more.

The best of the three is Monk and the Blue Flu. Again, the joy in reading this book is 'hearing' the voices of Shalhoub and Howard as they take their characters to new depths. But this book expands the cast of characters to show Monk might not have it so bad afterall. Monk has to step in to run the homicide squad when the city's cops call a wildcat strike. With all of the detectives out with the Blue Flu, the mayor asks Monk to accept his badge back and gives him a team of misfits, most of which are worse off than he is. In fact, the group each have their own versions of Natalie: a psychiatrist, an anger management counsellor and a loving grand-daughter, sparking Natalie's hopes of forming an association of sidekicks.

Monk's most obvious fixation in this book is the murder of an astrologer. Since I count Toronto Sun columnist Eugenia Last amongst my friends, it was of interest to me too. If they ever turn THIS book into a TV episode, I think Eugenia would be a perfect choice to play the offed diagrammer of the stars. At any rate, Monk DOES solve this murder, although it was a little easier than some puzzles I've read in the books. The Z-Team does its city proud, too. When the effects of the flu pass, largely due to Monk's work, the circumstances return to normal. And you can feel the great sadness within Monk as it does. NOTE: Goldberg could do worse than write a short story or two about the new detective agency born from the remnants of Monk's team.

I like the TV show and I like the books. They aren't classic. But they ARE entertaining and a good escape from whatever is wearing you down. I admit that Monk's OCD gets very convenient in terms of plot requirements. He has exactly the problem that either exacerbates the issues or helps solve the crime each step of the way. He can get less compulsive if the circumstances require it. But these books do a good job of exploring those times and gives them a bigger covering of reasonability. If you like the show and you like reading, than this is the series for you.

Three down, three to go. The three to go will be some time in the new year, which will get 2009 off to a good start.

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