Quality writing that evokes timeless themes may well survive decades, even centuries. Literary works by Dickens, Poe, or Dostoyevsky will, although the average high school junior finds them “soul-killing,” last far longer than today’s best-seller. Quick: what was number one on the NYT fiction best-seller list on this date in 2006? (Answer: Judge and Jury, by James Patterson and Andrew Gross)
On the other hand, no one thinks the writing must be great (though it helps) or the themes have to be timeless for books to be entertaining. When it’s all said and done, sometimes we read to nourish our soul, but sometimes our brains need a vacation. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series is what you read when your brain needs a rest, and Finger Lickin’ Fifteen is par for that particular course.
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No one could confuse Stephanie Plum with “Dog the Bounty Hunter.” The obvious gender difference aside, Dog’s competent but Stephanie’s bond enforcement agent skills pretty much equate to Bob Dylan’s as an operatic contralto. Steph has four skips to find this time (one weenie-wagger, one firebug, one dentist-threatener and one armed robber), but what truly concerns her is different: one of the men in her life, the mysterious Ranger, has asked her to help stop a string of robberies of Rangeman Security clients. Her other concern is that ex-‘ho co-worker Lula witnessed celebrity BBQ chef Stanley Chipotle’s murder by a meat-cleaver-wielding giggler; and now the same crazy stalks the BBBW in her teensy Spandex® skirts.
While Lula and Grandma Mazur try to perfect their barbecue sauce for a cook-off where the killer’s expected to appear; Steph works night and day for Ranger. Since her on-again-off-again relationship with Joe Morelli is “off” right now, will Steph succumb to the uber-sexy Ranger? And since neither Lula nor Grandma Mazur can cook, will the mismatched couple set the cook-off on fire, poison someone with BBQ ribs, or blow up a car? Or, perhaps, all of those?
You can depend on Steph and friends to save the intended victim’s bacon, round up the killer, and get that weenie back in the proper pants; but not before more than one car becomes a heap of glowing embers and a funeral parlor chock full of blue-haired ladies is scandalized — delighted, but scandalized. Stephanie Plum’s on the job, and by hook or by crook, Steph always gets her man. She’s like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police… if you crossed the RCMP with an auto junkyard!
In case you can’t figure it out from the book title, Finger Lickin’ Fifteen is number fifteen in a series about an intrepid bond agent from the Trenton, NJ, “Burg.” Evanovich doesn’t invent much for “Fifteen”; introducing no new characters beyond this installment’s unsavory bond skips. She does, of course, reprise the familiar characters; including Plum arch-nemesis Joyce Barnhardt (more eye makeup than Tammy Bakker) and the Plum extended family. With Morelli out of the picture, his dog Bob is also missing, although his critical role as a source of horrendous gas is ably filled by another character.
That all makes no difference. The “by the numbers” series isn’t character-driven; it’s literary slapstick overlain by romance and sexual tension. If Stephanie were to marry Morelli (or Ranger), the audience would plunge to zero for the next installment – most of the squabbling among Plum fans is whether Ranger or Morelli is Steph’s true soulmate… or perhaps just hotter. So what if Steph goes through cars like a gamer goes through Pop-Tarts? So what if the scenery looks familiar? Without taking the show on the road (like the trip to Vegas in To the Nines), there are only so many things that happen in your average rust-belt city, and if something has happened to the heroine before, perhaps it’s a metaphor for how humdrum everybody’s life is — even Steph’s. This series will always be about the unending catastrophes that befall Steph and all about how the plucky lady manages to survive in spite of them, especially with her friends helping. What more do you want?