Friday, May 14, 2010

'Monkeewrench' Is a Character-Driven Wild Ride

An online serial killer game incites a cluster of murders in the Minneapolis area. In rural Wisconsin, two people are brutally killed inside a Catholic church. Is there a connection? In mother-daughter team P.J. Tracy's first novel, Monkeewrench, big-city police, rural sheriff's deputies, and FBI agents find themselves entangled in a mess of such great proportions that none of them are prepared for the answers.

It begins with the software company Monkeewrench. Long known for their educational children's computer games, the members greedily decide to venture out into a true money-making field -- online games full of violence and adult themes. What results is a serial killer game, similar to the CSI games that have proven so popular. In the game, players examine murder scenes and use information gathered to narrow the suspect list. After the game is leaked to a select few hundred users for test rounds, murders begin to occur. In order. Exactly as they occur in the game. Widespread panic ensues, with victims turning up every 24 hours and a suspect list as long as the game's hundreds of players. But why this game? As the police investigate, they learn that there is more to the Monkeewrench members than meets the eye.

The mother-daughter team that writes as pen name P.J. Tracy is talented in both their characterization and in their ability to write exciting, action-filled plot twists. The myriad of characters fairly jump off the page. Among my favorites were the gruff police detective duo of Gino and Magozzi, the quietly troubled game-creator Grace, and the voluptuous (both in personality and in body) software maven/ clotheshorse Annie. However, at the beginning of the novel, the number of characters and the close attention paid to them was slightly confusing. I kept having to flip back when I started a new chapter, wondering if I had forgotten a character and situation or if this was yet another new one I needed to remember.

Also, while the plot is exciting and quick-paced, I felt almost a little too clued-in to the mystery. This is one of the only mystery novels I remember reading in which I knew "whodunit" before those investigating did. In some novels that happens just before the characters learn it (the killer is walking into a building where the detective is alone, and you realize in the split second before the protagonist sees them who it is and what that means), and that's okay with me. But I felt there were almost too many clues in this novel. The killer who is eventually outed was a suspicious person to me throughout the entire novel, for reasons revealed in the storyline. I didn't like the feeling that I should be shouting to characters in the novel, "Don't go in there!" as though it were a sloppily-made horror flick. You know the type -- characters walking up the stairs, and all the while you -- the viewer -- know good and well the killer is hiding in an upstairs closet.

Overall, however, Monkeewrench was smartly written and full of likable characters who will keep readers coming back for more about what happens to them in the future. There are four other titles in the Monkeewrench series, so should you be interested in what happens next, you should be able to find out! Not sure if you're in favor or not? Read an excerpt before buying or checking it out from the library.

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