Star Dreck

While I was rereading “Mr. Monk in Outer Space,” I was reviewing entries in Amazon’s novel contest, and I’m reminded once again how deceptively simple it is to tell a good story.

The contest started with 5,000 entries and at a stroke dropped over 4,000 of them. Of the 25 or so entries I’ve read, three were publishable (and, no, I wouldn’t consider my entry mine among them; my ego’s not that big). Of the rest, let’s be charitable and say they could use some work. There were stories that were lively told, but characters were as convincing as a political speech. Stories were buried beneath layers of leadened prose, and authors who used words that did not mean what they thought they meant. Small wonder, against this field of dross, that the few worthy stories gleamed.

And it made me appreciate the “Monk” series more, even though I’ve been a fan of Lee Goldberg’s work ever since I came across his “Star Trek” satire, “Beyond the Beyond,” in the review pile nearly a decade ago.

The “Monk” books are based on the television series about a brilliant detective who has an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Since the death of his wife, Adrian Monk has developed numerous fears, particularly of anything dirty, odd or out of order. He can’t drink a 7-Up unless he has two cans. He runs his doorknobs through the dishwasher. Weekly. Mixed nuts drive him wild.

With the help of Natalie, his assistant who narrates the books, he puts these fears at bay temporarily by solving murders as a consultant to the San Francisco Police Department. Solving a case brings order to the world, and Monk thrives on order.

In “Mr. Monk in Outer Space,” Goldberg draws on “Beyond the Beyond,” by borrowing his Gene Roddenberry-inspired character, Conrad Stipe, and killing him. When Stipe is shot to death outside a convention of “Beyond Earth” fans, Monk is forced into a subculture where people like to dress up in alien clothing and speak a fake language that one of the show’s writers admits he made up in a drunken stupor.

Monk is disgusted, and later appalled when he discovers that one of the show’s biggest fans is his agoraphobic brother, Ambrose, who makes a living writing technical manuals.

Some of this is played for laughs. Monk is convinced that the Earther fans are on LSD, and his nicknames he uses for them — “Boomers. Electric Kool-Aid. Purple Haze. Yellow Sunshine. Momma’s Pudding.” — is reminiscent of a “Dragnet” episode. There’s even a character inspired by Wil Wheaton, who’s proud of his latest work: “The Odd Couple,” played in his Confederation uniform with a dwarf who played an “interstellar slug” on the show. (“It could have gone to Broadway if only we’d found a producer with some vision and some guts,” the midget says).

Goldberg also takes a few shots at other TV shows, such as “CSI” (“the [police forensic] accountants were young, attractive, and dressed in stylish, perfectly fitted black clothes … they were like ninjas but with personal stylists and health club memberships”), and when a producer mentions that he rejected a show based on Monk:

“Who wants to watch a clean freak every week? … So we worked on it over lunch and came up with something a lot better — a detective who is a sex addict. Can you see it?” 

Monk’s eyes widened in horror. “Oh God, I can.”

While this is a light-hearted puzzle mystery, shadows are allowed to creep in. Goldberg knows what deserves prodding with a sharp stick, such as fans who take TV shows way too seriously, and what should be played straight, such as Monk’s inability to empathize with people around him, even those he love. It may be a frothy story, but there’s dashes of bitterness throughout. It may look easy, but as the Amazon contest shows, it’s not.

How did I get this book?: Bought.

Score: 80

All categories are ranked 1-15 except for bonus, which is 1-10.
Genre: 14
Realism: 10 It’s the nature of puzzle-based mysteries featuring eccentric characters that make it difficult to score well in this category.
Character: 15 “Monk” doesn’t pretend to be literary, but what it does, it does well.
Setting: 12
Theme: 13 Neediness threads through the book, from Natalie’s rejection by a suitor to Monk’s desire to keep his assistant in his life.
Style: 12 Plain, unadorned, effective.
Bonus: 4 For the in-jokes.

What do these numbers mean?
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