Reviewed by Don Messerschmidt (Nepal 1963–65)
EVERY PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER returns from abroad with rich knowledge of a place and its people, with new and insightful cultural perspectives, and often with enough story material in head and heart to write a novel, or two . . . or more. Author Woody Starkweather is a case in point. He and his wife Janet Givens taught English in Central Asia and are now using their international experience for writing. Janet does memoirs, Woody does novels.
The novels reviewed here are the first two in a series. They are entitled MOLP and KMEDJZIK, but I leave it to the reader to discover their meaning. I don’t want to give too much away here.
In each book, the protagonists are the team of Charles and Louise, who set out on an adventure personally assigned to them by the President of the United States. In MOLP, they travel to France and Kazakhstan. The President has asked them to dig up dirt enough to embarrass the President of France, for diplomatic reasons. Most of the story is set in Kazakhstan, a country whose politics and society the author obviously knows well. While digging into the background of the French executive, they discover an elaborate drug manufacturing, packaging and global distribution network run by some highly dangerous perps.
In KMEDJZIK, Charles and Louise leave the Oval Office with tickets to Serbia and, ultimately, to Costa Rica. The President wants them to track down and capture a treacherous Serbian war criminal on the lam somewhere in the mountains of Serbia. An interesting twist to this story is the roles played by an eight-year old girl and a force of Serbian women whose children are growing up fatherless.
The author describes Charles and Louise’s modus operandi as a “kinder and gentler” sort of espionage than the usual spy thriller. The protagonists call themselves “tricksters, dirty tricksters, really. We annoy, embarrass, [and] hobble the targets, always in secret — but no violence.”
Thus, Woody Starkweather’s writing is stylistically akin to the popular “cozy” genre of mystery novels. He avoids graphic violence and sex, and limits the propensity to murder. Instead of setting the scene in a familiar setting somewhere down the street, Woody’s protagonists pursue their craft in unique foreign places. While a typical “cozy” usually focuses on the talents of one amateur and usually a female protagonist, Woody gives us a highly skilled female-male team. And instead of roping in the police somewhere along the way, Charles and Louise are more likely to call in a team of airborne Marines for help in mopping things up. The result is a new and expanded sort of “cozy” novel, one that is great fun to read and all the more challenging for readers who like to vicariously work out the conclusion before the author gets there.
Another intriguing aspect of the series is the author’s propensity to endow Charles and Louise with a few highly-useful personal skills. Charles is hyperosmic, for example, and uses his acute sense of smell in the pursuit of justice. He is also a gifted linguist. Louise has a well-honed ability to quickly orient herself to new, strange places, based on training in astronomy and celestial navigation. She also has excellent protensity — the ability to readily estimate the passage of time without technical assistance. And, it’s not long until we discover she is a whiz on the Internet. All of this adds a bit of zip to the stories.
With the author’s writing skills and the sleuths’ talents as a razor sharp team, the novels move swiftly along from the moment the team leaves the Oval Office to each startling conclusion. Along the way there is tension and danger enough to keep the reader’s attention. These good reads are recommended for mystery buffs.
Reviewer Don Messerschmidt was a community development volunteer in Nepal from 1963 to 1965. He is an anthropologist and well-published writer, and has lived and worked in several Asian countries―Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Vietnam. He has been a magazine editor in Kathmandu, and has authored several award winning books from the Himalayas. Don and his wife Kareen live near Portland, Oregon. Read more of his reviews at PortlandBookReview.com, and many of his essays and articles at www.ecs.com.np.