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#2

Fearless Fourteen

By Janet Evanovich
St. Martin’s Press, 2008

In any bestselling series of books, especially one whose titles have climbed all the way into the teens, legions of faithful readers will be expecting one thing: the expected. For the uninitiated, the experience is akin to taking in a long-running Catskills nightclub comedian – insider riffing and loaded winks galore, but not much in the way of effort for the newbies.Fearless Fourteen is the latest installment in Janet Evanovich’s series featuring spunky, down-to-earth Trenton, New Jersey bondswoman Stephanie Plum, who narrates her own story and opens with a five-paragraph declaration to the effect that she is, as stated, spunky and down-to-earth:  

My name is Stephanie Plum, and in my defense I’d like to say that I have bread and milk on my shopping list, and I don’t have any communicable diseases. I’m five feet seven inches. My hair is brown and shoulder length and naturally curly. My eyes are blue. My teeth are mostly straight. My manicure was pretty good three days ago, and my shape is okay.

This time around, the plot involves a long-missing lump of stolen cash, an addictive video-game, a main character’s prospective wedding, and a security assignment that has our heroes (Plum and her fellow bail bondspeople) “baby-sitting” a brittle, over-the-hill one-name superstar called Brenda, who informs us that she is, as stated, brittle and over the hill:

“My facelift is eight years old. I’ve got two years, tops, and then the warranty runs out. The implants are shifting in my breasts, and these young guys I’m fucking are killing me. I’m going to need a vagina transplant.”

And through all of this there’s the expected romantic subplot between Plum and her hunky cop man’s-man boyfriend Morelli, who spends most of his (presumably) off-duty time naked and who, Plum assures us, could “give a dead woman an orgasm” (dead men, it seems, must fend for themselves – luckily, they’ll always have Carol Channing). Two of the plot’s wrinkles (a possible love-child and the possible location of all that stolen loot) involve Morelli, so he gets quite a bit of what can’t help but be thought of as screen-time (Evanovich’s mental casting of her characters is practically done in semaphore), complete with loving descriptions:

Morelli was dressing in his usual uniform of jeans and T-shirt while he was talking. If the occasion dictated, Morelli sometimes wore slacks and a dress shirt, but Morelli avoided suits. He looked like an Atlantic City pit boss in a suit. And no one could keep a straight face at Morelli in khakis. Morelli was as far from preppy as a guy could get.

(I forget: who was it we were talking about, again?)

If you noticed the fact that in a five-sentence paragraph entirely about one character that character’s name is mentioned five times, you’ve noticed the secret to Evanovich’s success, which is of course repetition. In the Stephanie Plum novels, the prose prevents the reader from doing anything even resembling work – instead, those readers are gently taken by the arm and carefully steered past even the smallest kinks in the carpet. Even while our characters are spouting movie-style clever dialogue in tense moments (nothing jagged or complicated – this is a Jersey that’s never heard of The Sopranos and read a word of Richard Price), readers are swathed in the same patterns, the same rhythms, hell even the same verbs. Here are our lovebirds after an aborted burglary:

“Wait,” I said, “maybe we should call the police.”
“Cupcake, I am the police.” [He-manly grunted Morelli, naturally]
“Yes, but you’re my police, and I don’t want you to get shot.”
“I’m not going to get shot. Stay here in the kitchen.”
No problem with that. I had no desire to follow Morelli into his spooky basement.
Morelli flipped the light switch and padded barefoot down the stairs. He stood for a moment, looking around, and returned to the kitchen.

And here are our lovebirds upon waking to the sound of somebody digging around out in the yard:

“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to shoot the digger.”
“That’s not a good idea. Not to mention, you’re naked.”
“The digger won’t care. He’ll be concentrating on his bullet hole.”
“You needed a new lawn anyway,” I said to him. “Think of this as soil preparation.”
He found a pair of boxers and pulled them on. “How’s this? Does this meet your dress code for shooting trespassers?”
We padded downstairs and tiptoed through the dark house.

(A reviewer must stoically resist the temptation to point out that the book’s 250 pages are full of padding.)

These and other shenanigans escalate to Fearless Fourteen’s, how to put it, multiple climaxes, and readers who’ve followed the series will hardly be surprised at who-all ends up on Plum’s couch at the novel’s end, munching popcorn and laughing together as the music swells and the credits roll: yep, you guessed it – everybody. Nobody ever dies in a Stephanie Plum novel. Nobody moves away, nobody screws up so bad they can’t be forgiven. Wacky adventures happen to this ever-expanding group of characters – but no tragedies, no disappointments, and especially no real surprises.

All of which must prompt purists to protest that this can’t, then, be any kind of writing at all. And it isn’t. Stephanie Plum novels require no effort to read, and presumably they require no effort to write. And at number 14 these novels certainly aren’t trying to teach or enlighten. Perhaps in more adventurous eras than the present, readers required those things of their bestsellers, but not in war-torn 2008. Nowadays they want a laugh or two, a pleasant ending, and most of all the latest on people they know in common, like Evanovich’s characters. The purists are right: this isn’t writing – it’s gossip. Outsiders can listen patiently if they like, but the steady ‘and then he …’ ‘and then she …’ is really meant for locals. And it’s the locals who’ll gather at the back fence for Stephanie Plum #15.

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Due to his deep friendship with Topham Beauclerk, Steve Donoghue was an original member of “The Club,” until he was expelled by Samuel Johnson over matters of personal hygiene (whether Donoghue’s or Johnson’s it remains unclear). He now directs his literary observations to the salon of his blog, Stevereads.

On to #3, The Last Patriot by Brad Thor