Sunday, November 29, 2009

Evanovich formula still finger lickin’ good

From The Boston Globe --

Evanovich formula still finger lickin’ good --

By Rich Barlow --
July 15, 2009 --

We observed one of summer’s major holidays on June 23. In case you missed it, that was the day the new Stephanie Plum novel hit bookstores. Every June, mystery writer Janet Evanovich releases the latest installment about bounty hunter Plum, whose saga now totals 19 books with “Finger Lickin’ Fifteen.’’ (Reviewer bias: I’m a proud native of Trenton, N.J., where the stories are set.)
As sure as the summer solstice, the books hit the bestseller lists, and the series has made New Jersey-born Evanovich a multimillionaire who splits her time between New Hampshire and Florida.

The real mystery is why this one-woman hit factory can’t singlehandedly support the entire publishing industry. The mysteries in her books, by contrast, are mere appendages, having evolved from plot to formula to specimens preserved in literary amber during the series’ 15-year run. Plum plots are devices to introduce Evanovich’s focus and trademark: humor involving Stephanie’s oddball circle. These include Lula, her flamboyantly flatulent fellow felon-finder; her Grandma Mazur, young at heart but proof that seniors with impulse-control issues shouldn’t carry guns; her cousin Vinnie, who employs Stephanie at his bail-bond agency and is suspected by his employees of being a closet pervert; and detective Joe Morelli, Stephanie’s on-again-off-again boyfriend.

The question each summer is whether the new book delivers more or fewer laughs than is par. “Finger Lickin’ Fifteen’’ delivers more, earning it a thumbs-up and a beach pass.

There are two plotlines, the first involving a celebrity chef’s beheading by mob thugs who then target the lone witness, Lula. As gruesome as this sounds, it’s played more for laughs: Lula’s gastrointestinal issues are pivotal, and the killers are incompetents, one of many examples of the series’ indifference to realism.

The other plot involves Stephanie’s moonlighting for a security agency run by Ranger, an ex-soldier and Plum fantasy object whose vocabulary approximates Rambo’s. (“Babe’’ is his standard greeting for Stephanie.) Someone is burglarizing Ranger’s clients, and since it appears to be an inside job, Ranger brings in Stephanie to find the turncoat. That a self-described bungler at bounty hunting could be helpful to the supposedly precision-trained, superman Ranger requires another suspension of belief.

A subplot has Stephanie helping Lula’s efforts to win a barbecue contest at which the decapitated chef was to appear. As these story strands unwind, the forever put-upon Plum loses her apartment and two company cars to assorted bombings and arson. She and her building supervisor commiserate that the apartment fire didn’t reach her ratty bathroom. The super tries to cheer her up: “I’m sure this isn’t the last time you’ll ever get firebombed, so maybe you’ll have better luck next time.’’

The New Jersey of “Finger Lickin’ Fifteen’’ is a place where people use words like “boinking,’’ “number two’’ (a bathroom reference), and “doodah’’ (a woman’s genitalia), and where funeral home viewings are social occasions as much as occasions to mourn the dead. Referring to the section of Trenton where her family lives, Stephanie says: “Death in the Burg was like pot roast at six o’clock. An unavoidable and perfectly normal part of the fabric of life. You got born, you ate pot roast, and you died.’’

Blissfully ignoring the far-fetched parts, I giggled throughout. Near the end, one of Stephanie’s co-workers suggests that they learn the winner of the barbecue contest in the next day’s paper. People reading newspapers in 2009? Talk about unrealistic.

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