Laura Miller
July 18, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Nowadays, every fictional detective needs a hook. Some are characters from, or authors of, classic novels. Others are archaeologists, caterers, tour guides, psychics, and stay-at-home moms. Stephanie Plum’s gimmick may be unique, though: She’s inept.

Actually, Stephanie, a bounty hunter working for a bail-bond agent in Trenton, N.J., calls herself ”brave and semicompetent,” a kinder and perhaps more accurate assessment. The appeal of Janet Evanovich’s popular creation is that she’s not much better than the average Jersey girl would be at nabbing criminals. She doesn’t know martial arts (”The only black belt in my closet is a narrow snakeskin with a gold buckle”), she doesn’t jog or work out (unless you consider walking in strappy sandals with four-inch heels a form of exercise), and if she’s still got her figure, it’s no thanks to sensible eating habits. Here’s what Stephanie consumes during the course of To the Nines, the ninth novel in this best-selling series: chocolate cake, fettuccine Alfredo with sausage, a bagel dripping with butter, McDonald’s french fries with a large Coke (her preferred hangover cure), a meatball sub, and a strawberry Pop-Tart — on the theory that it’s good to have fruit for breakfast.

Furthermore, Stephanie isn’t particularly clever; even she attributes her success to ”more luck than skill.” And that’s just as well, because if Stephanie could identify the bad guy as quickly as a moderately astute reader could, things would be wrapped up 70 pages earlier, minus the creepy finale. Anyway, the charms of Evanovich’s writing have less to do with intricate plotting than with the characters in Stephanie’s working-class neighborhood and her glamour-free job apprehending bail jumpers. The book opens with Stephanie and colleague Lula (a former prostitute and ”plus-size black woman in a size-seven white world”) trying to cuff a fat, hairy, naked guy who moons them, then slicks himself down with Vaseline and crows, ”You want to take me in, you have to wrestle with me.” In a quintessential Evanovich moment, some elderly neighbors turn up to kibitz about the bounty hunters’ technique: ”’You girls need to watch more television,’ the old man said. ‘You need to be more like those Charlie’s Angels…. They could kick doors down in all kinds of shoes.”’

Geezers like him are the heart and soul of Evanovich’s novels, spreading gossip via the funeral-parlor viewing network and popping next door to break up fights with the garden hose. There aren’t enough of them this time around, and that, more than the desultory story line about a serial killer stalking Stephanie, makes ”To the Nines” a less than stellar entry in the series. The appearance of Elvis impersonators (during a brief jaunt to Vegas) is always a sign of forced wackiness, and even the riot these guys set off (against some Tom Jones impersonators, their sworn enemies) lacks the vim of the doings back home. Stephanie — mooching dinner at her parents’ house, running into old high school classmates, and torn between the affections of a sexy cop and a sexier coworker — is refreshingly unlike the loner sleuths of most detective fiction. Setting her biological clock ticking, as Evanovich does in ”To the Nines,” is a risk (who ever heard of a pregnant bounty hunter?), but it could help Plum get her game back. Just think what the neighbors will say.

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