Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Jersey Girl

One for the Money, by Janet Evanovich, Read by C.J. Critt, Recorded Books, LLC 1995

I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up Janet Evanovich’s first novel about her bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. First there was the title. I’d seen other books of Evanovich’s on the shelf and I have to admit, I’m leery of gimmicky titles. (Other books in the Stephanie Plum series include Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly, etc. You get the point.) Based on no evidence whatsoever, I’d determined that series with such interconnected titles were probably juvenile, written for simps, and, yes, gimmicky.

I was delighted to be completely surprised. The book begins with an unexpectedly bawdy and energetic bang wherein the narrator tells of losing her virginity to a neighborhood tough, Joe Morelli, on the eve of his joining the navy. Earlier, when they were children he had tricked her into playing a game called “Train” in which she stood with legs spread while he choo-choo-ed under her skirt. Three years after her deflowering, when she revisits her hometown of Trenton, New Jersey, and spots him on the sidewalk, she deliberately clips him with her Buick, breaking his leg. We know from the book’s beginning that Stephanie Plum is one tough chick. I liked her instantly.

Granted, as this is my first exposure to the Stephanie Plum series, I have no way of knowing if this level of fun continues for the next ten or so books, but I’m willing to take the chance. The unlikely bounty hunter has spunk and pluck and brings a unique approach to her job.

How she comes across the job is through a family connection. Broke, selling off her appliances to feed herself, Stephanie dreams of scoring it big tracking down bail jumpers for her cousin Vinnie. Her first job, her choice job, which would net her a cool ten grand, is tracking down on-the-lam cop, Joseph Morelli.

Apparently, Stephanie’s old fling shot a man at point blank range under mysterious circumstances. When the police department got suspicious after no weapon was found on the dead man, Morelli was arrested. Vinnie posted his bail; Morelli went missing. All of this is compactly and hilariously delivered before chapter one is even halfway through.

Here’s Stephanie’s take on her cousin. “Vinny was a worm, a sexual lunatic, a dog turd.” Evanovich won my heart over entirely in that one sentence. Stephanie blackmails her perverted cousin into letting her do skip tracing for his bail bonds company, explaining to him in no uncertain terms that she knows about “the boys” and “the duck” and that she won’t be reticent to share that information with his wife.

For spending cash, Stephanie is reduced to picking up a drunk, a car thief, and a flasher as tracking Morelli proves harder than she at first anticipated. The drunk and the flasher provide humorous sidenotes, the former stupidly believing she was driving him to the police station to reschedule his court date and the latter an old man who lives in Stephanie’s building.

She is helped in her pursuit of Morelli by one of Vinnie’s more experienced bail bondsmen, a Cuban-American who goes by the name Ranger. He gets her hooked up with a gun and a permit and rescues her from a couple early mistakes. It is her second pick up, the car thief, that proves most difficult and results in Ranger’s wounding and exit from the story. Her other helper in the chase is Morelli himself.

This plot twist isn’t entirely unforeseen as Morelli is never presented as an entirely bad guy and because Stephanie’s mother has been pressuring her to find a nice man and settle down, at one point inviting the local butcher to a blind date at her house. Stephanie dispatches him rather quickly. “I suppose I was being a snob about the whole thing but I found it hard to think in romantic terms about a man who spent the day shoving giblets up a chicken’s butt.”

Morelli is another case entirely. Their developing relationship is amusing and Evanovich lobs a number of oddball scenarios perfectly in tune with her characters and the off-kilter world she imagines. The first time Morelli breaks into Stephanie’s apartment, he catches her in the shower and leaves her handcuffed to her shower’s curtain rod. Once free, she gets Ranger to let her into Morelli’s apartment, where she pinches his keys and “commandeers” his car. When Morelli finds out, he is angry, but he allows her to continue using it to distract the police, but to delay her pursuit of him, he tosses the keys into a fast-food dumpster. (Anyone who’s ever worked in fast food can attest to the vileness of this action.) When she finally catches him, she locks him in the back of a meat freezer truck and drives him ice cold to the police department.

Part of why they keep meeting stems from a burgeoning romance, and part of it stems from Morelli’s sticking around to find out who framed him and to clear his good name. Stephanie is leery of making a deal with Morelli at first, but her frequent and violent run ins with boxer Benito Ramirez lead her to cut a deal pretty quickly.

Lest you think Evanovich has too much of a pollyannaish view of bounty hunting with her charming battle of wits and the seduction between Morelli and Stephanie, the character of Benito Ramirez, an ur-Mike Tyson replete with soft voice and vicious attacks on women, is chilling enough to set you straight. Here Evanovich veers the story into far grimmer territory, providing the novel with enough emotional and dramatic ballast to keep a fun story from becoming nothing more than a light frolic.

Evanovich has a good pacing, strong, interesting characters outside of what you’d normally find in a mystery, and a sense of fun that’s well-played and well-written. The end comes a bit too abruptly and, as with many a rookie mystery, there is too much weight given to a villain who explains all the loose threads in the final act before attempting to kill the heroine, but these small conventional nods hardly mar what comes before.

C.J. Critt, the reader, owns the character beautifully, though some of her vocal choices for male characters sounded too much alike at times. Apparently only men in Jersey have accents. Her Stephanie is hard as nails while feminine from her curled hair down to her strappy sandals.

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