Spider Robinson, Callahan's Con (Tor, 2003)

The Callahan's crew is back once more for another wild adventure from acclaimed author Spider Robinson. It's been ten years since Jake Stonebender, his wife Zoey, their daughter Erin, time-traveling genius Nikola Tesla, inveterate punster Doc Webster, organ-playing Fast Eddy Costigan, the talking dog Ralph Von Wau Wau, and all of the other freaks and lunatics of Callahan's Bar moved to Key West and opened up a bar known simply as The Place. Oh yes, and ten years since they saved the universe from certain annihilation. Given a track record like theirs, which includes multiple world saves, can anyone blame the gang for settling into a nice rum-soaked retirement? Pity it can't stay that way.

Maybe the trouble starts when the Florida Board of Education finally decides to investigate the details behind now-teenage (and teleporting, time-traveling supergenius) Erin's home schooling (in a bar that's also something of a commune?). Or maybe the trouble starts with health issues for one of the Place's most beloved members. Or possibly, it starts when Tony Donuts Jr., would-be Mafioso and very bad man, chooses to make The Place one of the first places on his brand-new and ill-advised "protection" list. Trouble always comes in threes, it seems. And if Jake and friends want to save the day, they'll have to get creative. And this is all before Zoey winds up seconds away from death, somewhere in orbit around Jupiter....

I'm of mixed opinions where Callahan's Con is concerned. On the one hand, it 's got plenty of rich characterization, bad puns, fast adventure, wacky ideas, brilliant social commentary, and fascinating interactions. On the other... it's something of a train wreck. And I mean that only because I'm such a fan of the series, I hold it to a high standard. There are a few glaring plot holes having to do with missing characters, one major plot device hinges upon an apparent contradiction of something we saw in its original appearance decades ago, and part of the magic is just plain missing. Jake, who we used to be able to identify with as the Everyman, has, by his own admission, become so inured to the unreal and surreal that he has trouble thinking in terms of mundane solutions. The absence of certain popular, much-loved characters has left a void, one filled by new characters who, for the most part, don't add very much to the mix. A trash-talking Key West deer? A merman with a skin condition? Not one, but two men suffering from rare speech disorders? These are the sort of characters that used to have entire Callahan's stories devoted to them. Now they're just sort of there, possibly as long-term setups for godawful puns.

Finally, the death of a major character seems to change the entire tone of things, and not quite for the better.

While I love the Callahan's series, and can't recommend the first few books in it highly enough, I think we were better off when the story ended with Callahan's Key. I desperately fear that the series has jumped the shark when the title character can't even find time (literally!) to make even the briefest of appearances. Fans of the series may very well enjoy this book; for everyone else, I strongly urge you to go read The Callahan Chronicals, a collection of the original stories, first.

[Michael Jones]