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Sweet-tempered sleuth

Culture

When Tony Shaloub won the Emmy for playing the title character in Monk, he told a reporter that he was surprised to win for best actor in a comedy. "I thought it was a drama."

Mr. Shaloub, who came up with the idea for the USA Network show (with reruns on ABC), plays a former police detective, Adrian Monk, who has an obsessive-compulsive disorder. He has a phobia about germs; he panics when his routine is disrupted; he loses his composure at any kind of disorder. He is also afraid of flying, of being in closed spaces, along with just about every other phobia in the book. His personality, though, is remarkably ingenuous and sweet-tempered.

And although to get through the day he needs a common-sense nurse, Sharona, who becomes his sidekick, he can solve the most baffling mysteries. Because of his affliction, he picks up on the order and the violations of order-the inconsistencies, the tiny detail out of place, the unexpected connections-that constitute criminal evidence.

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Monk is in the mystery-story tradition of the "unlikely detective," the bystander who seems stupid or naive or inept, who yet confounds the macho cops and the sophisticated forensic scientists by being the only one who can solve the crime. G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown, the gentle priest who understands the heart of sinners and so can deduce their behavior, is the classic example, with Agatha Christie's little old ladies continuing the convention.

Another mark of faithfulness to the great mystery tradition on the part of Monk is that the plots do not cheat. Many crime stories today show "who did it," with viewers simply watching the good guys as they figure out what the audience already knows. Others do not let the audience in on essential clues, so that the mysteries are impossible for viewers to unravel. Monk, though, has plots that are genuine intellectual puzzles, so that the audience can work to deduce the solution along with the detective.

Mr. Shaloub portrays Monk with both humor and pathos. What caused Monk's mental breakdown was the one crime he has not solved, the murder of his beloved wife. What distresses him above all is moral disorder.

Add to the good mystery plots the combination of comedy and drama, with the complex and engaging character of Monk, and the result is one of the best shows on TV.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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