Top Secret Twenty-One
It strikes me as odd that I’ve not picked up one of these silly New Jersey-based crime stories in more than a decade. Time was, reading a volume in this series served as, for me, the print equivalent of reruns on Channel 11. But the tape doesn’t lie and I must have given up somewhere around volume 20.
Not that anything’s changed. Like any good TV show, the secret to these crime series is that change is minimal. If Kinsey Milhone suddenly became as inept as Stephanie Plum there’d be a revolt. And no publisher or commercially oriented writer would put up with that.
“Okay,” I hear you say, “What’s with the name dropping?” Crime fiction fans may recognize Ms. Milhone as Sue Grafton‘s shamus. I’d argue that term is appropriate given Milhone’s past service on the Santa Theresa police force and the repeated demonstration of her abilities over the course of 25 procedural novels.
I suppose you could also apply the term to Stephanie Plum except for the small fact that Stephanie is, well, a disaster. A former lingerie buyer for a department store (which, for some reason, I think has to be Bamberger’s, even though that doesn’t make any sense), Stephanie now makes her living as a bounty hunter, working for her cousin Vinny, a bail bondsman in her hometown of Trenton.
That isn’t as crazy as it may sound because crime is a distinctly secondary concern in these books. If possible, it might even be tertiary. What’s primary is the somewhat insane cast of core characters who together form Stephanie’s world. And what a cast they are, comprised of her family, her co-workers and her love interests. It’s a wonder there’s room for crime at all.
Stephanie wants to do a good job, she just has a problem with commitment. That explains her long-running romance with Joe Morelli, the heart-throb of her High School and now a homicide detective on the Trenton police force, as well as her primal attraction for Ranger. We’re pretty much led to believe that Ranger is the kind of guy that women look at and have an orgasm.
In the early volumes Ranger was merely, another bounty hunter who took a liking to Stephanie and always had her back. Now, he’s the owner of some sort of black ops/high-end security service. Ex-Special Forces, Ranger fears no danger, not even Stephanie.
In practice, that’s a tougher job than it seems because Stephanie’s hesitancy to commit to the more violent aspects of her job always breeds trouble–often costly trouble. For instance, it’s a recurring joke in every volume of the series that Stephanie’s car will be torched or blown-up. Half the time these cars actually belong to Ranger.
Like so much else in the series, the immolation is really just an excuse. In this case it puts our heroine behind the wheel of a mid-1950s Buick sedan, one of the steadier things in her life along with her family and her hamster. The hamster is often in peril, especially in this volume when a rocket is launched through the wall of Stephanie’s apartment.
I did say rocket. If plausibility is important to you these are not books you’ll want to read. A suspension of disbelief is almost a requirement. In this book, there are two big crimes that intersect. The more local of these involve the local Mob guys–a sort of Keystone Cops/Sopranos mash-up that lacks menace mostly because they seem incapable of finding their way out the front door.
On the other hand, there’s also a half-crazed Russian national running around seeking vengeance on Ranger while attempting assassination by Polonium. If that sounds vaguely familiar, it should, since there was just such an attack in London a few years back. Who knew you could reprise it in Trenton?
In any case, the plot is the least of it. If you are the kind who tracks details, don’t bother. Even though there are no gaping holes, the time structure–especially if you know the area–doesn’t always hold up well. If the whole book spans a week’s time that’s a lot and you’ll wonder how so much rollicking could be packed in to such a short time.
I don’t read these books for the plots, which seem to become thinner as time goes on. I do it for the laughs. Stephanie may be a confused young woman but she’s the sane one in all of this.
Her sidekick, Lula, is a former prostitute–plus size division–who wears yards of spandex when acres are called for. There isn’t a donut, bucket of fried chicken or pizza that’s safe when Lula’s feeling peckish and she’s almost always fancying a nosh.
Then there’s Stephanie’s family: her long-suffering mother, who hides from the madness about her in housework, church and the occasional cocktail. There’s her better half, Stephanie’s dad, a taciturn sort always on the verge of exploding. And there may have been a sibling who isn’t in this volume.
And then there’s Grandma Mazur, a character for the ages. Grandma’s wired into the gossip machine. She carries a 45, usually loaded, although it’s never quite clear she knows how to use it. Not wiling to age quietly, Grandma gets involved in Stephanie’s capers repeatedly.
Grandma’s great hobby is attending wakes. Someone is always dying in Trenton and getting a good seat near the bier is a must to maintain your funerary standing. That these wakes often deteriorate into melees–how better to flush out a criminal or bail jumper than to kill off a family member and force them to appear to pay their respects?–is a big part of the fun.
It was a rough year and I needed to wind down with something that made little in the way of demands on my brain. As I’d hoped, this was a romp, every unbelievable minute of it.
You could do worse.