Friday, November 25, 2011

One for the Money by Janet Evanovich

One for the Money by Janet Evanovich, 1994

"Damn court hearings are a waste of time," Earling said. "I'm seventy-six years old. You think they're gonna send some seventy-six-year-old guy to prison because he flashed his stuff around?"

I sincerely hoped so. Seeing Earling naked was enough to make me turn celibate. "I need to take you downtown. How about you go put some clothes on."

"I don't wear clothes. God brought me into the world naked, and that's the way I'm going out."

"Okay by me, but in the meantime I wish you'd get dressed."

"The only way I'm going with you is naked."

I took out my cuffs and snapped them on his wrists.

"Police brutality. Police brutality," he yelled.

"Sorry to disappoint you," I said. "I'm not a cop."

"Well what are you?"

"I'm a bounty hunter."

"Bounty hunter brutality. Bounty hunter brutality."

I went to the hall closet, found a full-length raincoat, and buttoned him into it.

"I'm not going with you," he said, standing rigid, his hands cuffed under the coat. "You can't make me go."

"Listen, Grandpa," I said, "either you go peaceably or I'll gas you and drag you out by your heels."

I couldn't believe I was saying this to some poor senior citizen with a snail dick. I was appalled at myself, but what the hell, it was worth $200.
--- (pages 266-267)

Stephanie Plum is in trouble: she's been laid off from her job as a lingerie buyer, the repo men have taken her car and her rent is almost due. In desperation, Stephanie calls on her cousin Vinnie, the owner of a bail bond firm in Trenton, New Jersey. Thanks to a little blackmail, Stephanie now has a new job: bounty hunter. With no experience and no idea how to gain any, she has to track down Joe Morelli, a local cop accused of murder. Stephanie has a history with Morelli, but she assures herself that it's just business. She gets ten grand if she can arrest Morelli in a week--and stay alive on the mean streets of Trenton, amongst criminals, cops, hookers and one very nasty prizefighter.

Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series has, over the last ten years or so, become hugely popular despite getting relatively little critical attention, either negative or positive. She's one of those authors (like James Patterson or Nora Roberts) who's pretty much ubiquitous on the bestseller lists and bookstore shelves. Her Stephanie Plum series has a cool premise and a devoted fan base, so I zipped through the series' first volume, One for the Money.

I didn't expect much, but I was mildly surprised. The novel is a little dopey in places, the beginning is sort of terrible and Evanovich's writing is just okay, but overall it's a surprisingly solid blend of chick lit comedy, romance novel and mystery/thriller. A shaky start notwithstanding, Evanovich is good enough at the three main areas of interest to put together a highly readable novel that introduces a series that could be a lot of fun.

Evanovich's main success is definitely her protagonist. Stephanie Plum is the kind of character that a lot of romance novels are built around (plucky, sarcastic, secretly vulnerable, just quirky enough to be interesting, Everygirl enough to be relatable). Mysteries and thrillers, however, usually have darker, moodier heroes, which is why Stephanie is so much fun to read about--think Kinsey Millhone with less experience and more lip gloss. She's the kind of comfortable character that a book like this needs to center it. Her progression from novice bounty hunter to gun-wielding badass is, for the most part, pretty believable and there's usually enough balance between her competent moments and her doofus ones to be satisfying.

Stephanie's motives are more problematic than her characteristics. Evanovich works hard through the first fifty pages to convince us that Stephanie is truly desperate and the only reason she takes the bounty hunter job is for the money. Evanovich never really sells the idea that an ordinary woman would risk her life repeatedly for a mere ten thousand dollars, and then keep working as an apprehension agent even after she is shot, beaten, attacked, bombed and almost raped. Obviously, for story purposes Stephanie has to keep working for Vinnie, but the motivation and circumstances seem highly contrived, especially during the beginning chapters, where Evanovich tries to make way too many implausibilities sound reasonable.

The series' humor is probably its most-hyped element, but Evanovich seems unlikely to topple Helen Fielding or Terry Pratchett any time soon. Humor and wit is a central part of the novel's appeal (most of it because of Stephanie's wisecracking narration), but for the most part I found it more charming than hilarious. Evanovich seems to be at her funniest when she's breezy and not trying too hard; the sequences that are calculated displays of sitcom-y madcappery, like the Plum family's inappropriate behavior, or Grandma Mazur accidentally shooting a turkey at the dinner table, feel kind of forced.

The romance-with-Morelli plot is not the novel's strongest point, either. Again, we have contrivances that are very old and tired, like the man and woman who supposedly hate each other working together. It's a device that still succeeds sometimes, but Evanovich plays it pretty straight. It's a good thing for her that their dialogue is genuinely amusing, and that Morelli walks the line between being a nice guy and being a real jerk. It's an agreeable storyline, but not a highly compelling one. My favorite moment is near the end, when Stephanie grows tired of Morelli's condescension and one-ups him in a highly satisfying way. I'm less enthusiastic about hints that a love triangle will develop between Stephanie, Morelli and Stephanie's bounty hunter mentor, Ranger. The will-they-won't-they thing is already hackneyed enough.

Better than the romance is the mystery/thriller element. Due to the emphasis on the series' comedic and romantic angle, I expected a flimsy, lightweight main plot. Evanovich instead delivers a pretty well-constructed story that's equal parts whodunit mystery and action thriller. Despite the book's overall light tone, the book's Big Bad, Benito Ramirez, manages to be fairly scary, injecting a real sense of danger in what otherwise have been more of a romp. The whodunit mystery segments are weaker overall than the more action-oriented parts-- it's not too hard to guess the evil mastermind, though the whole dastardly plot is a little more difficult to piece together. In any case, the main plot provides a terrific frame for everything else to rest on.

Perhaps the book's most impressive achievment is its ability to balance the seemingly opposing parts of the story. For a mix of comedy and thriller to work, there has to be a succesful blend of the light and the dark. Too much light, and there's nothing at stake. Too much dark, and the light elements seem uncomfortable and awkward. For the most part, Evanovich nails the tone, finding a happy medium between the extremes. While One for the Money is not shooting to the top of my list of favorite guilty-pleasure novels, it's definitely a smooth, entertaining read with a memorably unusual heroine.

NEXT UP: A trio of Nero Wolfe novellas.

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