10 Sep 2009
It’s an odd feeling to open a book and read that you’ve drowned in a swimming pool.
There’s been a long tradition of writers naming their characters after people they know. Sometimes, the results are benign. Patrick O’Brian named one of his ships the Ringle after a favorite book reviewer, and Mr. Ringle doesn’t seem to be the worse for it. A.A. Milne took his son Christopher Robin’s name for his Pooh stories, turning his childhood into a flinching hell. Authors have even put their characters’ names up for auction for charity.
Now, it was my turn. To thank me for helping with a previous “Monk” book, Lee Goldberg asked if I would mind being killed for your entertainment in “Mr. Monk and the Dirty Cop.” I said yes, pleased at the prospect of contributing to a novel without actually going to the trouble of writing it.
It also solved a problem when it came to writing this review. I’ve enjoyed Goldberg’s work since encountering his Star Trek parody “Beyond the Beyond” more than a decade ago. Since then, he’s turned out a number of novels, including tie-in novels for “Monk” and “Diagnosis: Murder,” and a standalone comic novel (“The Man with the Iron-On Badge,” a Donald Westlake-type romp that plays off his love of TV detective shows), that have been consistently good in quality.
The consistency is good for Goldberg, but it plays merry hell with a reviewer who finds himself running out of new things to say about each book. So I was looking forward to seeing myself splashed across the pages of “Mr. Monk and the Dirty Cop.”
For those of you new to the show, here it is in brief: Adrian Monk is a brilliant police detective with obsessive-compulsive disorder whose life goes off the rails when his wife is killed. His OCD becomes so chronic he has to resign, but acts as a consultant to the San Francisco Police Department with the help of his assistant, Natalie Teeger.
Although a sympathetic character, Monk is a pain in the ass to work with. His desire to reorder the world and his fear of germs forces him to do bizarre things. He will sort a crowd at a soccer game so that an even number of persons are in each row. He’ll demand the arrest of a litterer. He’ll wear a hazmat suit in public if he feels he needs to. Naturally, this drives everyone around him crazy.
“Mr. Monk and the Dirty Cop” plays with the logical outcome of Monk’s incredible crime-solving ability. His perfect record is used to embarrass Captain Stottlemeyer, his boss, and he loses his contract as a result of budget cuts. Monk goes to work for a high-end security firm, but is called back when Stottlemeyer is charged with murdering a detective he had bounced from the force years before.
That’s it in a nutshell, but there’s a lot of subplots as well, and that’s where I ? or at least my namesake ? comes in. When Teeger expresses frustration about her purpose in life, Stottlemeyer takes her to visit a family taking care of Dad, a delusional old rummy who used to run a bar and pass tips along to the police. Here’s how we meet him:
“Bill Peschel stood behind the kitchen counter, drying some glasses with a towel. He looked to me to be in his late sixties or early seventies. He wore an apron over his sunken chest and broad belly. Tufts of hair sprang from his nearly bald head like patches of dry, overgrown weeds. His nicotine-stained teeth were almost the same color as his weathered skin.”
Like Monk, he’s living in his own world, only worse. Or, as one of his relatives put it:
“You try living with a delusional, gutter-mouthed old coot who thinks he’s still tending bar in a Tenderloin dump filled with hookers and drunks.”
Good thing Goldberg has never met me. I’d start feeling self-conscious.
Like I said, it’s a good thing I’m not reviewing the book, because as I kept encountering my name, I felt more and more uncomfortable. Seeing one’s name in print associated with this character causes a disassociation with my self-image of the employed writer, father, and husband. Sometimes, it felt like I could feel a gear slipping in my head, so it was something of a relief when I’m finally killed and my ashes are dumped in front of the former site of the bar, now a Jamba Juice.
Fortunately, there’s plenty to appreciate about the book. Getting inside the characters’ heads is a major function of fiction that film can rarely reach, and in this series, Natalie’s concerns about her place in the world form a major backbone of the series. There’s even room for the odd observation of her own, such as this one about Marin County commuters who listen to NPR:
How do I know what station they were listening to on their radios? Because I know Marin County residents are well educated, own at least one Bob Dylan or Van Morrison album, and are notoriously liberal for people with so much money.
Then, she breaks the fourth wall:
And because I like to embrace cliches that have some truth to them and I enjoy making broad generalizations that support my biases. If you haven’t learned that about me by now, you haven’t been reading very closely.
Pleasure can even be taken in the secondary characters. Stottlemeyer reflects with mixed emotions on how he sees Monk’s role in the department. Lt. Randy Disher, last seen reveling in his underground cult status in Paris, gets to take over an investigation in this one. Goldberg loves playing with the conventions of the TV crime shows, so Disher imitates David Caruso, complete with sunglasses, tries to get everyone to call him “Bullitt,” and even works in a few one-liners of the kind that lead to a commercial break.
The Monk books not only capture the pleasures of the TV show, but add to it by deepening our understanding of the characters. It’s a testament to Goldberg’s energy and inventiveness that he’s been able to do it successfully for eight books.