Mrs. Plansky’s Revenge, by Spencer Quinn (Forge Books, 291 pages)
Spencer Quinn is the pen name for Peter Abrahams, the Cape Cod resident who is the genius behind the “Chet & Bernie” books. They’re a collection of whimsical mysteries narrated by a dog who solves crimes with his human companion. I have zero evidence to support this, but believe that the books were sold solely because of their titles, which include “Tender is the Bite” and “The Sound and the Furry.” If you like this sort of thing, I suppose the books are great. If you don’t, they are painful.
And so I confess I came to the start of Quinn’s latest series with some trepidation, despite Stephen King having declared on the cover that he “absolutely adored the book.” The novel is called Mrs. Plansky’s Revenge, and it’s about a Florida widow who gets cyber-scammed by some unethical Romanians. It’s quirky, but surprisingly poignant and fun.
The titular Mrs. Plansky is 71 and although her first name is Loretta it is an affectation of the book that she is called Mrs. Plansky throughout. She had been married to Norm, with whom she had a long and satisfying marriage, producing two children. The couple had lived in Rhode Island, but the success of their business — the Plansky Toaster Knife, a knife that toasts bread while you slice it — enabled a comfortable retirement in Florida where they did the obligatory retirement thing when you live near a coast: “getting a metal detector and taking it for long beach walks.”
All this to say, Mrs. Plansky missed her husband greatly when he died of cancer, but he left her enough money that she doesn’t have to worry, and she keeps busy with the many needs of her grown children and grandchildren, and also with her tennis foursome.
Unfortunately for Mrs. Plansky, while she is living her best widowed life, a villainous man somewhere in Romania is paying an instructor to teach English to his dead brother’s son. It’s a bit of a struggle. The frustrated teacher tries to explain to the boy why no American ever says the grammatically correct phrase “It is I” — “You must learn the right wrong grammar. That’s the secret of sounding American.”
How does one learn the right wrong grammar? “There are ways. For one you could go to YouTube and type in ‘Country Music.’”
The teen, Dinu, is learning English for a nefarious purpose that is obvious from the start. At his uncle’s direction, he will be connected with hapless senior citizens in America in a scheme to drain their bank accounts. Mrs. Plansky is his first victim when she authorizes a payment to a person she thought was her grandson using a platform hilariously called “Safemo.”
While the banks and law enforcement were suitably solicitous about Mrs. Plansky’s plight, they ultimately said there was nothing they could do because the Romanian authorities tended to look the other way on such crimes, seeing as they brought U.S. dollars into their economy. At first Mrs. Plansky resolves to just figure out how to live out her days on Social Security and any job she can get; she owns her car and condo outright (and has a new hip), meaning she is already in better shape than many other people her age. She sits down to do an accounting of her assets, liabilities and income and have a drink like people on the Titanic “after the collision but before the realization,” and finds the math grim.
In addition to her own living expenses, she has promised loans to her children and is responsible for her 98-year-old father, who needs to move into a more expensive wing of his assisted living facility. Also, she is feeling as though she failed her beloved Norm in being taken in by the scam and losing their savings. She is finally overtaken with “real, hot fury” over her circumstance, sells her deceased mother’s emerald ring and books a plane ticket to Bucharest, determined to solve the case (and get her money back) herself. Hijinks ensue as she moves from “doing, not being done to.”
Since the publisher has already revealed that this is the first book in a new series, it’s obvious that Mrs. Plansky will survive her adventure with her pluck intact. There are enough clues throughout the novel that the astute reader will have a vague idea of how the story will end before Mrs. Plansky even deplanes. If you’re looking for a heart-stopping thriller with a surprise ending, look elsewhere.
That said, Mrs. Plansky’s Revenge is light-hearted fun packed with sly asides (like a “presidential suite” in a Romanian hotel that had a picture of Richard Nixon above it) that elevate it above a beach read — or a story of a dog detective. It’s a deceptively smart little novel, inspired by a similar scam call to the author’s father.
And Chet and Bernie fans can rejoice; that series is not over. Up on the Woof Top, a “holiday adventure,” comes out next month. B+