High Five

by Janet Evanovich

Published by St. Martin's Press

292 pages, 1999

 


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"Five" is a "10"

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson

 

As a little girl, Stephanie Plum used to dress up her Barbie without underpants. Twenty years later, it's her own backside (and a nice little backside it is) that's figuratively exposed while she chases down deadbeats as a freelance "bounty hunter" for her cousin Vinnie's bail-bond agency in Trenton, New Jersey.

Author Janet Evanovich minces no words and strikes no artsy poses in High Five, her latest unabashedly hilarious novel (after One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly, and Four to Score) about Stephanie's not-so-brilliant career as a low-level investigator. In a genre with a penchant for noir, High Five stands out like chartreuse. Consider this cast of characters:

Stephanie's mentor, Ranger, a dark, handsome fitness buff. He does security work "in that gray area just beyond entirely legal" and has an interest in Stephanie that is well beyond entirely professional.

Her off-and-maybe-on-again boyfriend, Joe Morelli, a plainclothes cop with a laid-back and sexy Clint Eastwood style. "I love you," Joe reassures her. "I just don't want to marry you."

Her current quarry, Randy Briggs. An unlikely bail jumper, Briggs is a clean-cut computer programmer who failed to show up in court for a minor case. When Stephanie stakes out his apartment, he slips her this note: "Dear Loser, I know you're there and I'm not coming home until you leave."

And, of course, Stephanie's mom. Mrs. Plum's solutions to life's problems are simple: roast lamb, roast chicken, coffeecake, and chocolate-chip cookies. Mom, dad, aunts, uncles, and grandmother all live in a Trenton neighborhood known as "the burg," which Evanovich describes almost wistfully:

If you were born and raised in the burg, you're a burger for life. Houses are small and obsessively neat. Televisions are large and loud. Lots are narrow. Families are extended. There are no pooper scooper laws in the burg. If your dog does his business on someone else's lawn, the next morning the crap apples will be on your front porch. Life is simple in the burg.

Amazingly, there's a juicy mystery at the center of all this kitsch and kin. Stephanie's cheapskate Uncle Fred has vanished in broad daylight from a shopping-center parking lot. He'd been in the midst of errands that included demanding a two dollar refund from the local garbage hauler because of a missed collection. Aunt Mabel seems more interested in trading in Fred's old station wagon for a new luxury car than in locating her spouse. But she does give Stephanie some disturbing photographs she found in Fred's desk: shots of an apparently dismembered body.

"I had a missing uncle who quite possibly had butchered a woman and stuffed her parts in a body bag," Stephanie muses at one point. "But I was also a month overdue on my rent. Somehow I was going to have to manage both problems."

Manage is not quite the word for what transpires. Stephanie sandwiches her investigation of Uncle Fred's disappearance in between a series of desperately needed assignments from Vinnie and Ranger -- each of which she bungles spectacularly, with devastating results. Before you're halfway through the book, for instance, she's destroyed two of Ranger's company cars, one a sport utility vehicle, the other a Porsche. "Cars are easy to come by. People are harder to replace," the laconic Ranger says gallantly after the Porsche explodes, adding, "You might be more the Humvee type."

Amidst her professional debacles, she deals with the advances of Morelli and Ranger, charmers both. But Briggs the bail jumper is delaying everyone's gratification. Burglars ransacked his apartment while Stephanie was hauling him off to court. To Stephanie's relief, he's promised not to sue Vinnie's firm -- but only on the condition that Stephanie takes him in as her houseguest until his apartment is redone.

Stephanie is not only being admired and imposed upon, she's being followed. One of her stalkers is a recently released rapist she helped put away, Benito Ramirez, a heavyweight boxer who creepily refers to himself in the third person as "the champ." Also on her tail, though, is a mysterious man named Bunchy, who claims to be a bookie looking for her Uncle Fred. Stephanie finally shakes Bunchy off with a little help from her coworker Lula, a former hooker ("200 pounds in a pair of size 9 jeans") who -- in one of this novel's most over-the-top scenes -- leans through Bunchy's car window, grabs him by the neck, and French kisses him into submission while Stephanie speeds away.

Evanovich definitely favors the Lula approach as it applies to writing. She packs more punch -- and punchlines -- than does any other writer in the increasingly crowded female-P.I. field. She turns blue-collar stereotypes inside out and back again like someone pairing socks.

Evanovich got her start as an author writing romance novels (the "Loveswept" series, now out of print and becoming collectible). Don't let this deter you from reading High Five -- there's not a blush or a sigh in this story, though I suspect the romance genre has something to do with its tantalizing surprise ending. You go, girl! | June 1999

 

KAREN G. ANDERSON writes regularly about crime fiction for January Magazine.

 

To learn more about author Janet Evanovich and her novels, check out her Web site.