By Matt Ruff
First Published: 2007
Cover Design by Will Staehley
Review © 2012 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Thriller, Mystery, Science Fiction
Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff is a tense psychological thriller with a large dollop of espionage/conspiracy elements along with a dash of science fiction elements. The combination results in a unique and addictive reading experience that grabbed my interest right off the bat and kept me enthralled through fast pacing and unexpected plot twists right up until the end when my suspension of disbelief was stretched a little too far and there was one too many final twists.
Matt Ruff came close to hitting a home run with Bad Monkeys as everything was going perfectly until he stumbled on the home stretch. I loved the opening premise where a woman named Jane Charlotte is being interviewed by a doctor in an insane asylum in an attempt to find out why she committed a murder. She patiently explains that she was working as a hit woman for a secret organization dedicated to fighting evil. The organization is nicknamed, “Bad Monkeys” but their official name is, “The Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons”. The only problem is the man that she killed was not a bad person, he was killed by accident. When the doctor asks Jane to explain, she protests that the background story is too long and complicated. The doctor reminds her that she has plenty of time and so she launches into a story that starts with her childhood and grows into a complex series of adventures within a shadowy fight between good and evil that is never noticed by the average person.
Jane’s story keeps the reader guessing throughout. She’s obviously an unreliable narrator as the reader listens along with the doctor to her story in order to find out if her story has any truth to it or is solely a product of her imagination. The chapters alternate between Jane recounting her story with short interludes of conversations between her and the doctor who does some checking on the events she describes and finds some major discrepancies. However, Jane finds ways to explain the discrepancies although her explanations begin to really stretch the limits of believability as her adventures become ever more wild and crazy.
The character development of Jane is done exceedingly well as we find that she has many layers of complexity. She seems to have a good heart but has gone through some traumatic events and has run into major troubles from her childhood on into adulthood. She’s had problems with drugs and has been disowned by her mother. When she accidently stumbles into a secret espionage war between two ultra-secret organizations, she is relieved to have finally found her purpose in life. However, Jane is obviously not your typical secret agent hero as she has some very dark secrets and serious weaknesses.
Some of the other characters are not nearly as well fleshed out depending on how important they are in Jane’s view. Members of the secret organizations often have comic book type code names such as True and Wise.
When Jane recounts her dealing with the secret organizations, some science fiction elements are introduced as the secret organizations have special advanced weapons that can be used to kill people while making their deaths look completely natural. The weapons look like toy guns but they can be set to stun or to kill by causing heart attacks or strokes. The secret organizations also have access to secret laboratories and controlled environments where they can create complex simulations.
Jane’s story takes complicated twists and turns that keep the reader guessing all the way through the novel. The reader gets to listen in while the doctor tries to understand what is true and what is not as he tries to probe the psychology of his patient. As Jane’s tale progresses, her adventures get more and more exciting, and more psychological twists are uncovered. I was completely drawn into both the action adventures and the psychology behind the adventures. After every chapter, I wanted to jump right into the next one.
The fast paced action, adventures, mysteries, and complex psychology all combine for a terrific reading experience for the bulk of the novel. However, in the last few chapters, the action starts to become a bit too over the top and then during the last chapter, there is a final major twist that fell flat with me. I give credit to Ruff for keeping the reader guessing and for not creating an ending that was vanilla flavored but the ending was just too much of an abrupt about face for me. I was left with a hollow feeling.
I recommend Bad Monkeys as a great mixture of secret agent conspiracy thriller with dark psychological underpinnings. I would give the first ¾ of this novel top marks but the ending was a little disappointing and dropped my final rating to 3 out of 4 stars. However, I would still give Bad Monkeys a strong recommendation for anyone who enjoys espionage thrillers or psychological thrillers because of the unique reading experience that this novel delivers.