Don't even think about reading this book if you haven't watched at least the eighth and final season of the Monk TV series. It's probably a good idea to read at least some of the preceding ten books in the Adrian Monk series by Lee Goldberg. Assuming you've had all that fun (and I dearly loved the TV series and continue to love this book series), then read ahead in this review. You've been warned.
The odd thing, after saying you have to have the background to enjoy Mr. Monk on the Road, is that Goldberg immediately starts weeding out many of the long-term characters that inhabit the Monk universe. Not before the first, rather mundane murder is solved. But after that brief fling at standard Monk novel developments, we don't see much of Capt. Stottlemeyer. Lt. Randy Disher is off-stage, having gotten together with Sharona, Monk's ex-assistant back in New Jersey. And even delightful Molly Evans, Monk's almost-daughter (her mother was Monk's long-deceased wife), gets off-stage PDQ.
Goldberg takes full advantage of throwing off the shackles and restraints of the Monk TV canon, by immediately taking Monk on another road trip. With his brother Ambrose and his assistant Natalie Teeger. As always, the book is written through the viewpoint of Natalie, who's developing despondency about her pending empty nest syndrome. So, she's a little more neurotic than normal in this book, although not in a league with the obsessive/compulsive Monk brothers. Especially, initially, Ambrose. He's more or less kidnapped and hauled out of his house and into the RV. And off on a trip through southern California and then back to San Francisco.
And here's why this book is probably the best of the Monk novels to date. It has heart. Actually Heart with a capital H. And Hope. And Happiness.
Now, it's never easy to throw words like heart, hope and happiness around in a Monk book. The books are, in many ways, about his eternal suffering. Schadenfreude allows us to enjoy him solving problems, giving us some laughs, and generally making us happy that we are neither him, nor the suffering Natalie. There but for the grace of God ... and all that.
But this book has Heart. The newest Monk is one who can see past his own problems to want to do something good for his brother, no matter how discomfited he knows he's going to be. He engages in the kidnapping, not wholeheartedly, but with enough enthusiasm that you can see him straining to think of others before himself.
And the result is Hope. Not thr kind that had him longing, and then succeeding, to get back onto the police force as a full-blown detective. No, that was fool's gold all along. And he realized that not long after getting his wish. No, the hope here is of a re-kindled relationship between the brothers. Of a life that might get Ambrose out of his house more often. Of a Monk who can allow himself the thought of being normal, if even for the briefest of times.
Lastly, we get to Happiness. On the face of Ambrose. More than once. Monk might generate more than his share of chuckles. But smiles? Smiles of actual happiness beyond solving the crime and the chance to wrap up a crime. Ahh, not so much. There were the happy times cleaning up the streets of Paris. But that was another time and another book. But you know, a little sunny disposition is refreshing in a Monk book.
I should note that some potential recurring characters make their debuts in this book. I don't expect to see Dub Clemens again, but this latter day Mark Twainish detective type would be welcome back, healthy or otherwise. That said, Yuki looks to be a keeper. At least Ambrose thinks so. And Randy's replacement, Lt. Devlin, shows some promise. I hope Goldberg keeps her waffling between being a friend and being a foe for Natalie and Adrian.
In a lot of ways, Mr. Monk on the Road is like the other road trip books in the series. Entertaining, informative about the locales and funny. This one adds just a little Heart and becomes endearing.