by Steve Steinbock
Some very good novels – and even a few short stories – have been written about serial killers. It’s a subgenre that’s been done, done well, and sadly overdone. I’m not going to talk about that kind of serial killing this week. I’ve had a few interesting reading experiences in the last few months that take a different twists on the term “serial.”
Mr. Monk in Trouble
The USA Network series about the lovable obsessive compulsive detective has come to the end of its eight-year run. But writer Lee Goldberg still has a few more “Monk” stories in him. I haven’t read a lot of tie-in novels, but I think this one’s worthwhile for a couple reasons:
- Lee Goldberg is a good writer.
- The series hero Adrian Monk, and his “Watson” caregiver Natalie Teeger, are very endearing characters. (Die-hard fans of the show should remember that nit-picking the discrepancies between small-screen and printed-page is a symptom of OCD).
- The book features “tuckerized” references to several people in the mystery and western community, often with their names twisted around and swapped. There’s an underling cop deputy named “Billy Crider,” a museum director named “Edward Randisi” and an auto mechanic named “Bob Gorman,” and several others.
But what makes Mr. Monk in Trouble especially relevant to short story lovers is the way Goldberg incorporates several shorter stories into the novel. EQMM readers may recall Goldberg’s story, “Mr. Monk and the Piss Poor Gold,” from the November, 2009 issue. That story featured a character named “Artemus Monk,” an assayer of precious metals during the Gold Rush, and who is probably Adrian Monk’s ancestor. During Mr. Monk in Trouble, Monk’s nurse/assistant Natalie Teeger (she’s not really a nurse, but she may as well be for all she does for her needy boss) discovers a book – the journals of a 19th century widow who served as Artemus Monk’s assistant. As Natalie reads through the book, she finds startling parallels between her own boss and the Gold Rush assayer. Mr. Monk in Trouble is peppered with five or so selections from the old journal, and the book-within-the-book serves as a useful counterpoint to the modern mystery.
The Deaver List
The Watchlist, a pair of collaborative novellas by members of International Thriller Writers, gets a mixed review – a snicker snack as it were – from my Vorpal Blade. I’ve long been an admirer of Deaver’s writing, in fact I’ve been reading him since the time when he still included his middle name in his byline. Deaver is a successful novelist, but is, in my opinion, one of the great short story writers of crime fiction around today.
Deaver pulled together a team of writers, all members of International Thriller Writers, to play a game of literary tag-team. Both short novels feature former War Crimes investigator Harold Middleton – now a collector and authenticator of musical manuscripts. The first novella, The Chopin Manuscript works pretty well. It features chapters by David Hewson, S.J. Rozan, Lisa Scottoline, Lee Child, and ten others. The second piece, The Copper Bracelet, comes off more of a mishmash despite its high caliber team of contributors (Gayle Lynds, Brett Battles, Lisa Barnes, and others). As I was reading the second half, I had the sense that many of the writers hadn’t bothered to keep track of what their predecessors had written. Characters changed while others were forgotten. Plot threats unraveled.
Still, the book is worth it for the first half and as a showcase of a lot of talent, including many for whom short fiction is a foreign art.
Philatelist for Hire
When people ask about my favorite writers, the two names that always come up are Fredric Brown and Lawrence Block. I’ve written about Brown before, in fact I credit him (and Lewis Carroll) with the title of my weekly blog column. But Block has given me more reading pleasure than any writer, living or dead. He’s a master of the short story as well as the novel. He writes humorous mysteries as well as some of the most gut-wrenching dark crime novels of our time.
A dozen years back I asked Block to sign a few books for me. One was Tanner on Ice, about a sleep-deprived spy who finally falls asleep. The other was Hit Man, the first collection of short stories about a killer-for-hire with a conscience and a penchant for collecting stamps. Larry asked if I wanted them personalized, and on a whim (I’ve done it several times since) I asked him to sign one for each of my two sons. When I told him their ages (they were one and four at the time) Larry gave me a reproachful scowl. But he signed them anyway.
My son Sam, who was just a baby when Larry signed Hit Man for him, just turned 13. He decided he wanted to read the book. Negligent parent that I am, I allowed it. Sam loved the book. “Man, Dad,” he told me several times during the five nights it took him to read it, “This guy really writes!” I asked Sam to clarify what he liked about the book and the author. “He writes like no one I’ve never read before. He’s funny and smart at the same time. He uses words that you don’t normally see and some of the things he writes make me just go ‘wow!’”
From the mouths of babes. Or thirteen-year-old boys, anyway. Hit Man, for those of you who haven’t read it, collected ten of Block’s stories about Keller. The stories flow well as a novel of sorts. Sam is happy to know that there are three more books about Keller, plus more than fifty other Block titles on my shelves.