Burgs Sunday book review
Reviewed by Jennifer Poff Cooper, of Christiansburg, graduate student at Hollins University
Years ago, a friend told me about a hilarious series, the Stephanie Plum novels. They sounded fun but too light and fluffy for my taste. Fast forward to 2011 in a class called “The Detective in Film & Literature,” and what appeared on the syllabus but the first Stephanie Plum novel. I not only read it but enjoyed it, and have now become hooked on the series. Janet Evanovich’s novels have been phenomenal successes, with Evanovich mixing elements of traditional detective novels with her own personal style. Evanovich spent two years shadowing law enforcement and bail bondsmen, and learning to shoot a gun. This helps to make her writing self-assured and her storytelling believable. Her most recent installment, “Explosive Eighteen,” recently released in paperback, continues the popular and entertaining series.
In this book, out of work lingerie buyer turned bounty hunter Stephanie becomes unintentionally embroiled in an FBI case while on vacation in Hawaii. Once back home in New Jersey, she simultaneously tries to pursue bail skippers while keeping from becoming the next dead victim in the FBI case. Along for the ride are a cast of distinctive characters: her policeman boyfriend, Joe Morelli; her sometimes lover / fellow bounty hunter, Ranger; and her sidekick, the flamboyant Lula. In addition, Stephanie’s family provides comic relief, especially the wacky Grandma Mazur whose hobbies include funeral home visitations and comparing guns with her senior friends.
Overt humor is an aspect to Evanovich’s storytelling that distinguishes her from other detective writers and keeps the drama from becoming too serious. Lula is laugh-out-loud funny, Stephanie is a virtual walking disaster magnet which is always good for a chuckle, and tangential characters often provide quirks or plot points that make the reader smile.
The real strength of the Stephanie Plum novels is, well, Stephanie Plum. The plucky heroine is the central focus of Evanovich’s novels, with the plot being secondary to the relationship formed between the reader and Stephanie. Stephanie is self-deprecating and honest. She realizes her limitations, both professionally and personally, and the reader gets to empathize with her since we are voyeurs to her private thoughts. While Stephanie is gutsy, resourceful, and tough, she more bumbles into the solutions to crimes rather than solving them. This makes Stephanie seem more like an average person–smart but not brilliant. Evanovich also includes witty descriptive passages, such as explicitly describing the meager contents of an impoverished Stephanie’s kitchen, which make the reader become enamored with the novel and the character.
There is no doubt that Evanovich’s dialogue is somewhat raunchy, and some feminists in my class felt Stephanie caters too much to men. But with the dialogue and characters who might sound cartoonish, Evanovich never goes overboard. She keeps things clever and appeals to the reader’s emotions. In the middle of quips and graphic repartee, for example, Stephanie and Lula converse about Lula’s regrets regarding her past as a prostitute.
My one complaint with “Explosive Eighteen” and other later Plum novels is that there is too much Lula and not enough Stephanie. While Lula is highly entertaining, with her attitude and urban dialect, a little goes a long way. Additionally, in this novel, Lula inexplicably falls in love with one of the bail skippers, which completely distracts from the main storylines.
I was right: Stephanie Plum books are light and fluffy. These detective novels are not so much intellectual exercises as moderately suspenseful, pleasurable stories. “Explosive Eighteen” provides another such formulaic venue for Evanovich. However, I keep coming back to find out just what my friend Stephanie has gotten herself into, and how she will get out of it this time. “Notorious Nineteen” is due out in November.
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