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Monk Fun Page Review: Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse

Most insanely devoted Monk fans, and some of the more casual viewers, will approach Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse with a little trepidation. How can this new medium hope to capture the essence of Monk the series and Monk the character? The charm and success of both seem inextricably tied to the virtuoso (Emmy, SAG, Golden Globe winning) performance of the show's producer and star Tony Shalhoub. Author Lee Goldberg's answer to that is to dedicate the book To Tony Shalhoub, the one and only Monk and to take a step back from the title character. Instead he tells the story from the point of view of Adrian Monk's assistant, Natalie Teeger and it turns out Natalie's head is a nice place to be.

In this novel, the first of at least three, Monk's apartment is being fumigated so he moves in with Natalie and her 12-year-old daughter Julie for a few days. Julie's got a ready made mystery for their houseguest: Sparky the firehouse dog has been murdered. Monk agrees to take the case, but the Dalmatian's demise is just the tip of the garbage heap. The mysteries pile up quickly, but Monk eventually sorts them all out.

The Natalie persona is a comfortable host in the tradition of Dr. Watson and Archie Goodwin. Like her literary predecessors, she's sufficiently mystified by the puzzles Monk solves; she tackles the romantic subplot with warmth and humor; and she does most of the heavy lifting. Her encounter with the mugger is inspirational.

The humor throughout is very Monk, just a little off center and never too jokey: "He's a dog, she's a dog, I think that's all that really matters to dogs," I said. "That's why they call them dogs."

The characterizations of Natalie, Captain Stottlemeyer and Julie are all spot on. Lt. Disher only shines briefly, but that's how it usually is for him on the series as well. All the new characters are very vivid. So much so that it's almost as easy to visualize them as the characters we already know. One of my favorites is the Fire Chief, Captain Mantooth. Unless I'm wrong, which I don't think I am, that's a nod to Firefighter/Paramedic Johnny Gage, played by Randy Mantooth on the classic TV series Emergency. I hope when and if the novel becomes an episode that Randy's available for the part. Pop culture references abound and that's part of what makes the book just plain fun to read.

The plotting is well done, intricate and excting, but the novel also has the one element that defines the series, heart. It's what makes the character of Adrian Monk admirable instead of laughable and what makes all the relationships ring true. Early on Natalie and Stottlemeyer have a brief conversation:

"How are you holding up with Monk as a houseguest," Stottlemeyer asked me.

"It's only been a few hours."

"A few hours with Monk can seem like decades," he said. He took a pen from his pocket, scrawled something on the back of a business card and handed it to me. "This is my home number. If you need a break, give me a call. I can take him out to the car wash."

"Thank you, Captain," I said. "That's very nice of you."

"You and I are the only ones who take care of him. We have to back each other up."

"We're sort of like partners."

"Sort of," Stottlemeyer said.

"He likes the car wash?"

"Loves it," Stottlemeyer said.

Perfect. From that point on I didn't put the book down.

I cheered at the ending of the main mystery and loved the final chapter with the revelation of a secondary mystery.

Monk fans will no doubt spot a few continuity errors. Most noticably, as revealed in the series, Monk doesn't drink milk and although he never actually gets around to it here, it's discussed as if he does. I was also suprised that Monk was allergic to cats. In "Mr. Monk and the Missing Granny" it was established that Disher was allergic to cats, but there was no indication that Monk was and in that particular episode he's exposed to the same cat that Disher is.

As a result of a surprising development on the show, Natalie goes from saying she pushes a cart around Wal-Mart in the beginning of the novel to admitting she grew up with money and it feels like a bit of a U-Turn even if it was unavoidable.

Also at the beginning some readers may already identify more strongly with Monk than Natalie does, but the bond between the characters seems to get stronger as the plot progresses. We finally get a deeper look at Monk from Natalie's perspective when he confides in her about what drives him: "There's nothing magical or spiritual about it. I'm not skilled enough yet to figure out who murdered my wife. If I solve enough cases, maybe someday I will be."

Even with a couple of minor flaws that won't get by most Monk fans, Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse is just what Monk should be. Goldberg has a clever, breezy style that matches the tone of the series. Even the hard to please devoted fans of the TV series shouldn't be disappointed and with only sixteen episodes a year supplemental Monk is a blessing.

Author Lee Goldberg is the mystery writing's answer to Pierce Brosnan. Brash, yet sensitive; jaded, yet optimistic, he's toiled in the Hollywood trenches for decades as a screenwriter and producer on such cultured fare as Diagnosis Murder, Nero Wolfe, Deadly Games, Flipper, Baywatch and, of course, not just one, but two episodes of Monk. He has a couple of Edgar Award Nominations and a notorious blog. He doesn't brag about it, but he writes like a girl: "My wife is amazed I was able to capture a woman's voice, too" admits Goldberg. "If I understand women so well, she says, why don't I understand her!" (Probably the same reason Adrian Monk can't solve his wife's murder: he's just too close to it.) Lee is also the man behind the woman for Natalie's blogs on the USA Network Monk Site.

Goldberg, Lee. Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse. New York: Signet, 2006. 292 pages. $6.99

Monk: The Second Novel
(to be released in Summer 2006)


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