Mr. Monk and the Two AssistantsI'm starting to get the sense that the Monk series are like the Star Trek movies - if you're not overly fond of one of the books, just wait patiently for the next one to come out, and you'll be impressed by what you get. I was definitely very impressed with Mr. Monk in Outer Space. This book fixes up the issues of the previous book and delves head-first into a fascinating look at the psychology of Monk and his entourage.
Mr. Monk in Outer Space is set in a fandom world somewhere between Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek, and isn't shy about the similarities. It even calls those two shows out by name several times. It was like re-reading "Will the Vampire People Please Leave the Lobby" and a recent Meg Langslow mystery set in that same world. I wonder if it's the current theme in book writing, to surround yourself with interstellar aliens. What I'm saying is that parts seemed *too* redundant just because the other books had covered this exact same ground, but that's something you expect when writing about a subgroup that is very popular at the moment.
Monk starts running into a series of unrelated murders, and solving them as he usually does. Many of the details are telegraphed so you can spot what's going on before Monk does, but that's fine. This book isn't really about those murders. Rather, it is about how Monk relates to his brother Ambrose, and how he becomes slightly more self aware.
I *adore* the Ambrose character - the episode where he is introduced is one of my all time favorites. I was extremely nervous when this book began with Ambrose, given my feelings (and the feelings of many others who wrote me) about what was done to Sharona in the last book. However, my worries turned out to be completely unfounded. If anything, Ambrose was far more rich, more fully realized, than the show had time to draw him. And really, this is one of the true keys of a novel. A TV show has extremely tight time constraints and has to convey the quintessence of meaning in every line of dialogue. With a novel, you have the luxury of fleshing out the nooks and crannies, of building depth and history and meaning. This book certainly does that in a stellar fashion.
It's not just basic "Oh this is why he does X" type of history. It's better than that. It's the little glimpses into personality, the small looks, the hesitations. This book is just head and shoulders above the previous books for many reasons, and it really echoes in the experience you have when you read it.
Natalie shines in this book. I had several issues with her character as portrayed in previous books. I have nothing but praise for her here. Yes, she is flawed, but her flaws are natural and meaningful. She has strength, she has insight, and everything she does is true to what she is about. The same is true for all of the characters. You might get annoyed at a character for doing X, but their behavior fits within their mental framework.
I do have to comment about one aspect. Monk is greatly "escalating" his phobias in this story, without any stated reason. If there had been some back-story about this being "right around the anniversary of Trudy's death" or some other reason, I would have taken it in stride. However, there are several key plot points that involve specific phobias which specifically contradict TV show activity. In fact one phobia contradicts behavior from the previous book where I was very proud of Monk for how he behaved. They were fairly obvious and quite jarring.
Again, with the rest of the book being so excellent, I tried to mentally make up an excuse for Monk that he was "going over the edge" for some sort of internal reason. The carpet stain just wasn't enough to explain this change of his rules. I realize this writer may not watch all the TV shows as religiously as some of us readers do, but there should be an easy enough way to have a list of each show and the phobias / activities shown in it as a reference guide. Heck, I suppose maybe I should post one on my site. I realize there's always going to be minor problems in a story, but when something is a key plot point - and it's Monk suddenly not wanting to do X when he's been doing X fairly frequently in the past without any real problem - it's a roadblock. It would be like Batman being in a climactic final battle and suddenly saying "I don't like physical violence - why don't we just talk peacefully with the Joker?" It's certainly an interesting plot twist, but without any reason or context, it is awfully confusing.
So, that aside, the book had many laugh out loud moments, the insightful underlayer was fascinating, and the characters as a whole were extremely well done. Natalie and Ambrose were perfect. I am looking forward to the next book with great enthusiasm.
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