The Brass Monkey Series by Susan Wells Bennett
Four retirees living in Phoenix, Arizona seem unlikely as protagonists in a series of novels named for a downmarket working man’s kind of bar. But novelist Susan Wells Bennett has written an ongoing saga about four people whose lives are as complicated and entertaining as any twenty-somethings you may know.
Milo Crosby was for many years a border patrol agent in Minnesota. He was good at law enforcement but at times less deferential than was required in dealing with citizens, in particular a Canadian square dance caller whose complaints led to his forced early retirement. He moved to Arizona to be near his son, and his son’s family. But he finds himself bored in the desert with little idea how to mend fences with his alienated offspring.
Sondra Lane was a movie star. Almost. After starring in one poorly received major motion picture, Sondra married a hugely famous and successful actor/producer and spent a couple of decades as part of Hollywood’s royalty. She has a very strained relationship with her daughter, Epiphany. Sondra is horrified by Fanny’s insistence on changing her name to something a lot less Hollywood and embracing instead her Jewish family traditions.
Sax Ridley was a good cop back in New Jersey. A big butch man, he confided in his partner on the force about his penchant for having sex with other married men whenever he got the chance. He almost got away with it. Until the wife of one of the men he’d bedded confronted him with a gun in the police station and managed to shoot herself and end his career with a single bullet. He moved to Phoenix and opened The Brass Monkey, where he is mostly licking his wounds and biding his time.
Claire Combs and her husband had been hydroponic tomato farmers for twenty some odd years when her husband is murdered in a bungled home invasion by robbers who mistake the big tents that they grow tomatoes under for a pot farm. And the assailants are very disappointed that there is no cash or weed on the premises. She volunteers at the zoo because her sister back in Oklahoma insists that she has to have some reason for getting out of the house. And she frankly prefers animals to humans at this point in her life.
As Wild Life opens Milo takes up old-fashioned film photography as a hobby and finds himself exasperating Claire, who catches him (against all zoo regulations) using dried peas to try to lure monkeys into the range of his lens. He decides to have a drink one night at the Brass Monkey where he meets Sondra who wastes little time in talking her way into an invitation back to his house– where she quickly helps him to realize that he does know how to make love, after a long, loveless and largely sexless marriage to the woman he calls Dead Alice. Before he can even think, Milo finds that Sondra has moved in and re-decorated his home.
In Charmed Life Sondra Lane is at a disastrous rehearsal for a community theater production of Hello Dolly in which she is cast as the understudy for Mildred Kovich in the title role. As she tells her bartender, Sax, afterwards at The Brass Monkey “Bob Kovich is an idiot”. Sax doesn’t want to hear it since Bob is the married man he’s currently sleeping with. Milo and Claire somehow progress from insults at the zoo to dating, Sondra begins a relationship with a very successful comic book artist half her age and all sorts of complications ensue for our four protagonists who have all become friends with each other.
Night Life finds Sondra attending her daughter’s wedding while Milo goes to bar-tending school after persuading Sax to let him work a few shifts a week at the Brass Monkey. Claire has been extremely cranky and irritable, which she chalks up to menopause. But Sondra suggests she may in fact be pregnant. As always, Bennett’s prose is very smooth and the story keeps drawing the reader in page after page. I find that I have come to genuinely care about these characters, and hope with all of my heart that Susan will write again about these folks, even perhaps in novels that focus on only one of the four and give readers some insight to what happens to these folks after Bennett wraps up the strands of their New Life.
Bennett’s novels are rich in dialogue, and she is really good at finding the voices of her characters and letting them speak to each other in their own words. There is an almost “movie” quality to these novels. You can’t help but seeing these stories play on the big screen as Bennett describes them. For fans of light, comic fiction The Brass Monkey Series is Very Highly Recommended. Not To Be Missed.