This week, the Romulans decide to build their own Terok Nor—with blackjack, and hookers—but when they can’t stand the (lack of) heat, they find themselves forced out of the kitchen. When the Enterprise investigates the drifting station, they find themselves getting the same cold shoulder. Now they have to find the thing going bump in the night, and Scotty’s goofy ghost stories aren’t helping. Does Walter Koenig have dirt on the L.A. Graf ladies? What does a Romulan dildo look like? And whatever happened to sonic showers? All this and more in Shell Game, the book that will never know the joy of a Coney Island footlong.
Author: Melissa Crandall
Published: February 1993
Timeline: After Ice Trap (TOS #60) (a couple of direct references)
As Shell Game opens, the Romulans stand poised to take their next great leap in interstellar exploration: they done gone and built themselves a dang ole space station. One chapter later, however, the mighty Reltah floats aimlessly through Federation space, showing no signs of life aboard. What happened? Kirk moves to investigate, but gets Spock-blocked: apparently, Starfleet has handed down a new guideline strongly recommending that captains not risk their lives needlessly on potentially dangerous away missions. So Jim gets to sit around with his thumb up his butt while the more exciting work falls to Spock, McCoy, a trio of redshirts, and (because this is an L.A. Graf–adjacent book) Chekov.
The assignment starts off routinely enough, albeit with some spooky lighting, until McCoy finds a mountain of Romulan corpses in the station’s auditorium. Though it’s not cold enough for it, scans show they all died of hypothermia. Amid that mystery, the landing party’s own internal temperatures (especially Spock’s) begin the same precipitous plummet, and mounting malfunctions start to plague the Enterprise. If they can’t figure out what’s going on quickly enough, the crew and the away team stand to suffer the same gruesome fate as the crew of the Reltah—that is, if the Romulans don’t come looking to haul their jalopy back first…
The TOS slate of late has been dominated by the work of the writers’ collective known as L.A. Graf. Although that pseudonym doesn’t grace Shell Game‘s cover, its author, Melissa Crandall, was one of the identities under its umbrella. The previous book Crandall’s Shell Game most readily calls to mind is Bloodthirst (TOS #37), the spoopy vampire romp that stands among J.M. Dillard’s few non-adaptational works. Adventures best suited to Halloween are rare in Trek, though hardly unprecedented—see the just-mentioned Dillard novel, as well as the exceedingly dumb season-one episode “Catspaw”.
Shell Game narrowly edges out Bloodthirst as my favorite Halloween-type story to date. In keeping with its light “zoiks, g-g-ghost” tone, it features chuckles aplenty. It’s especially got a good bit of Spock/Bones interplay, which for some reason it feels like we haven’t gotten in a hot minute. However, it also knows exactly when to jerk itself and the reader back into harsh reality with a sharp yank of the chain. Being an L.A. Graf novel in all but byline, it features signature qualities I’m quickly coming to associate with the pseudonym, particularly getting to know the redshirts very well before cruelly killing most of them. All of these things it does quite well.
What it does best, though, is pile on. This is one those books that really tests the limits of how much these brave souls can handle. Most of the time, when I make it to the last ten or twenty pages of one of these books and I don’t know how it’s going to wrap up, that’s a bad sign. But the way Shell Game builds continues to generate suspense and excitement to the very last, culminating in a cool twist I freely admit I didn’t see coming at all. While the core premise isn’t exactly the most exciting, it’s executed with a flavor that pushes a lot of my personal buttons.
If this had come before the other L.A. Graf stories and/or been written by someone not associated with the group, I might have been a little more blown away by it. As it is, it’s simply more of the sturdy quality I’ve come to expect from a trusted brand. I feel like I’m damning it with faint praise, but even though I’m just a few inches shy of calling it a diamond of the first water, I’m still fully prepared to give it an unqualified recommendation, especially if you like a bit of light horror in your Trek. If there’s a sensation you like getting from a Star Trek novel, Shell Game probably serves a generous portion of it.
MVP & LVP
- My MVP this week is one of the redshirts, Ensign Leno, a security officer who’s such a BAMF I mentally cast her as Stephanie Beatriz from Brooklyn Nine-Nine while reading. Runner-up to Spock—I feel like it’s been ages since he’s been allowed to be this … fun. Outside of one aggravating verbal tic (more on that below), his wit is in top form. It’s understandable that authors want to give more time to less heralded characters, but sometimes the best have to remind you why they’re the best.
- My LVP this week is also one of the redshirts, Ensign Markson. Markson hails from Vindali 5, a world where the populace believes heavily in paranormal occurrences and is easily super-spooked by them. Though it’s mentioned that he managed to tamp this down during his Academy days, it all comes rushing back on this assignment and basically, along with his own paranoia, gets him killed—a grisly death in a rogue turbolift. It seems odd that someone from this background and with these qualities would not only want to make a career in space, but follow through with it, make it through the Academy, and take them with them onto a starship—though I suppose if Barclay can flourish, anyone can. Markson also counts as my Ten Forward Toast, and though I’m not going to make a separate section for it since I already talked about it here, this is the first time one character has won two awards for the same book, right? I’m not looking it up.
Nuggets & Other Stray Bits
- Spock says “I will endeavor to” at least two dozen times in this book. It’s that sort of cringey-type how a dumb person thinks a smart person talks. It was really making me grind my teeth by the end.
- There are multiple instances of water-based showers in this book. Whither the sonic shower? I guess there’s no replacement for good old H₂O-to-skin contact.
- “The doctor followed her gaze. He’d seen tapes of Coney Island, before it had disappeared into the sea so many years ago.” — Sadly, in all likelihood, all too prescient a passage. (p. 95)
- “In a fourth [shop] were displayed items that made [Ensign] Hallie blush and look away and made McCoy chuckle. ‘Well, they didn’t close up for lack of variety, that’s for sure,’ McCoy remarked.” — This is talking about sex toys, right? They passed a sex toy shop on the Romulan promenade? What do you think a Romulan dildo looks like? You know what, don’t answer that. (ibid.)
- This week, in Stop Trying to Make Fetch Happen: “[McCoy] hated heights almost as much as he hated water.” (p. 113)
- There’s an ad in the back of this book for the first Alien Nation novel, written by the esteemed writing team of Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. I’ve never watched Alien Nation. I turned 4 two days before the movie came out, and I have only the vaguest memory of the TV series, though I think my parents were fairly into it. At first I thought it was one of those Roddenberry leftovers that got made after he died, but I was conflating it with some other things. Reading about it, it’s kind of crazy how long people carried the torch for this show after its cancellation, though I suppose Star Trek fans would know a thing or two about hyping a canceled series. This book, Day of Descent, came out nearly three years after the show ended! The full series and all five (5) TV movies are on YouTube. Maybe I should watch it. No, no, I don’t have time for this. Who am I kidding, I’m gonna watch it.
I give Shell Game 3.5 out of 5 derelict Romulan space stations. It’s a book that’s able to entertain, lightly spook, and build to a rousing climax with equal skill, delivered with the rock-solid competence one comes to expect from the L.A. Graf collective. If you like it when Star Trek gets spoopy, Shell Game is the best example yet reviewed here. I had a fair bit of fun reading this one, and I suspect you will as well.
NEXT TIME: Benjamin Sisko is the Emissary