Apologies for the silence on the blog, but it has been a busy week. So, whilst I read this mystery in April, making it the third Mr Monk read for that month, the review itself is a little late.
‘Monk is horrified when he learns there’s going to be a blue flu in San Francisco. He doesn’t understand what the blue flu is, but it sounds terrible. Stottlemeyer explains that it’s not really a virus. The police force plans to call in “sick” until they get a better contract. The good news is the labour dispute will give Monk a chance to get back on the force. The bad news is it means he’ll be a “scab”—and he doesn’t like the sound of that either. Before he knows it, Monk has his badge back, and his own squad to command. Unfortunately, some of the squad members make Monk look like a paragon of mental health. But despite the challenges, they’ll have to pull together to catch an astrologer’s killer, solve a series of mysterious fatal assaults, and most importantly, clean up their desks.’
This book has a very different set up from the two I have previously reviewed, as Adrian Monk is back on the police force (one assumes temporarily), due to ongoing labour disputes over police pay among other things. I like how this is a series which mixes things up and it has been interesting seeing how each Mr Monk book has had something new to offer.
It all kicks off with attention-grabbing opening lines: ‘The corpse might as well have been in a minefield, surrounded by razor wire, and guarded by trigger happy-snipers. There was no way Adrian Monk would go near it.’ Dramatic content, yet at the back of your mind you are waiting for the juxtaposition to occur i.e., the moment when you realise that the danger surrounding the corpse is minor but is magnified in Monk’s perception. The reader is plunged into a serial killer case and in keeping with the beginning of Mr Monk in Trouble (2009), we get to see Adrian Monk dazzle us and those around him with his deductions about the victim, based on obscure specialist knowledge. This scene and a passage that follows it put me in mind of Sherlock Holmes and how he too had immense yet limited knowledge. Dr Watson mentions this in A Study in Scarlet (1887) when he records that:
‘Yet his zeal for certain studies was remarkable, and within eccentric limits his knowledge was so extraordinarily ample and minute that his observations have fairly astounded me. Surely no man would work so hard or attain such precise information unless he had some definite end in view. Desultory readers are seldom remarkable for the exactness of their learning. No man burdens his mind with small matters unless he has some very good reason for doing so. His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to
be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.’
This paragraph is succeeded by the following exchange:
“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”
“To forget it!”
“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”
This rationale from Holmes feels in keeping with Monk and the knowledge he knows or lacks and in Mr Monk and the Blue Flu we see a variant of Holmes’ missing understanding of astronomy. Natalie Teeger, Monk’s assistant who narrates the books, says:
‘One of the things that amazed me about Monk was that he knew all about things like Soviet dental fillings or the copper content of gold from different regions, but if someone had a gun to his head he wouldn’t be able to name one of the judges on American Idol or tell you what a Big Mac was. I often wondered how he decided what obscure knowledge was worth knowing and what wasn’t. After all, which was he more likely to come across, a Big Mac carton or the Georgian flag?’
The serial killing crime which the book commences with, is not solved within the initial few chapters, which differs from the openings of the other two books I have read in which Monk is given a mini mystery to solve before the case proper starts. However, this is part and parcel of the different nature and structure of this book, which is brought about due to Monk re-joining the police. One of the biggest differences to be noted in this story is the sheer number of separate murder cases Adrian Monk and his team have to solve, as to begin with it feels like every other chapter Monk and Natalie have to head out to a new crime scene. Yet this reflects Monk’s new role as a police captain and as such I think the style of this book takes on that of a police procedural. This is not usually a style I like, but Goldberg makes it really work with Monk.
Part of the reason this was an interesting police procedural mystery for me was that the people working under Monk at the police department are officers who have also been reinstated. Upon hearing this you wonder what reasons they were booted out for originally, as well as how dependable they will be. The first question is answered with a variety of responses, and on paper as Natalie initially sees it, it does not look like a winning line up. Each of these detectives has their own “assistant” be it a relative or a paid health care employee of some kind. This creates an engaging range of interactions as Monk and Natalie have to negotiate dealing with other people’s quirks and unusual or difficult behaviours. Yet it does emerge as the plot unfolds that their individual differences do help to solve the many cases the team faces – once Adrian Monk lets them so to speak.
In the first third or so of the narrative, a key feature is Monk being confronted with the challenges of being in a team manager role and he must accept that he can’t act the way he usually does when he has been a police consultant in the past. He can’t “hog” all the interesting bits, which will allow him to be the “star” (yet of course he still is!) and he must be prepared to delegate tasks beyond what he sees as the mundane grunt or leg work. This learning period does make Monk a less sympathetic figure at times. Moreover, we see Monk in an ambiguous position in taking on the captaincy. Those out on strike are angry at him accepting it, feeling betrayed, yet Natalie tries to weigh this up with how much it means to Monk to be back on the police force – something which has been his dream for many years. This brings an interesting note of conflict to the story as a whole.
Two highlights of the book are Monk’s trip to an art gallery and his reactions to the pieces on display, as well as the inversion of roles for Monk and Captain Stottlemeyer (who is on strike). It was also interesting to see how the captain can, to an extent and for a time, understand Monk’s behaviours and emotional difficulties. I found this use of the captain’s backstory/personal life more engaging, and it did not come across as padding or filler material.
As you get to the end of the book you know Monk inevitably must lose his badge somehow, which feels sad. However, I think Goldberg does a great job at making the story conclude on a positive and comic note. You come away from the book feeling upbeat, rather than down. So, all in all a very enjoyable book.
Hopefully May will see me returning to this series, as I have bought a few more titles to supplement the ones my husband bought. We should then be about two books away from a complete set.
I’m glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for the detailed, thoughtful review.
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Thanks! Looking forward to trying my next Monk read.
Most of them can be read them in any order — except for MR. MONK IN GERMANY and MR. MONK IS MISERABLE…. and MR. MONK ON THE ROAD, MR. MONK ON THE COUCH, MR. MONK ON PATROL and MR. MONK IS A MESS …which are best read back-to-back to easier follow the continuity/changes in their lives.
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Thank you for the reminder, I can use your comment as a useful reference point!