John Putnam Thatcher's 23rd case—and his first since Right on the Money (1993)—dares to ask the timely, yet somehow absurd, question of whether Quax, the Kichsel Brewery's nonalcoholic beer, has the effect of luring underaged drinkers into a taste for Kix, its more potent sibling. On this side are the Kichsel brass, clients of Thatcher's Sloan Guaranty Trust, poised to plant Quax in every supermarket, vending machine, and burger chain in this great nation. On the other side are the Ludlums, suing Kichsel over the drunk-driving death of their teenaged son; the Soft Drink Institute (SDI), who'd rather have teens stick to Coke and Pepsi; and the lobbyists of Madeleine Underwood's newborn NOBBY (No-Beer Buying Youngsters), convinced they're fighting an addiction as insidious as cigarette smoking. In the middle, it turns out, is Madeleine Underwood herself, a rip- roaring messiah who infuriates so many people on every side of the issues (the beset Kichsels, burger king Elmer Rugby, the SDI command, a fence-straddling congressman, her own NOBBY troops) that you'll feel a real pang when she finally gets bashed to death, transforming her potential for hilariously active mischief into a mere embarrassment for the legion of innocents suspected of her murder. Be of good cheer, though: Thatcher demonstrates in the end that the author's cleverness didn't pass away with wickedly etched Underwood—or during Lathen's sabbatical, which this bubbly satire brings to a triumphant end.
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