Treat Yourself to Some Meat

Finger Lickin’ Fifteen
Janet Evanovich

My local library has its own way of celebrating summer: they put out a table of pulpier titles that have been donated and invite patrons to take home a fresh read or two.

Unspoken is a request to just not bring them back. We’ve a small library and, evidently, a big book-buying population; even a couple of book sales a year can’t move all the donated titles, and so they are reduced to giving them away.

That explains how I found myself laughing my way through this installment of Janet Evanovich‘s long-running crime series focused on Stephanie Plum, bond enforcement agent, a job more commonly referred to as bounty hunter.

You may recall my last encounter with Stephanie, in which she tangled with Russian assassins. Though I categorize these books as crime fiction, that’s really a stretch. Whatever crime exists in these books is an excuse for the comedy and doesn’t even have to be remotely plausible.

I’m pretty sure the guy on the right is a celebrity chef famous for grilling. The other guy looks a little bit over-dressed for BBQ.

Here we have a perfect case in point. The book opens with Stephanie’s sidekick, Lula, a one time ‘ho (her word, not mine), witnessing a murder. In other hands, it would be a gruesome attack, since the victim literally loses his head. Here, despite Lula talking about what she witnessed at close range, the overwhelming image we’re left with is the killers departing with the body while the head rolls down the street somewhere in a seedier part of Trenton.

The head is found first, although the body surfaces later, dumped unceremoniously on the front steps of a funeral home.  It’s nice when killers start saving steps for mournful families and the authorities. Yet despite the victim’s status–he’s a celebrity chef with a line of BBQ sauces, in town to judge a  BBQ festival–he’s less than essential to the plot.

In fact, the plot is almost inessential. You might argue these books are procedurals, but that’s true only in the sense that a moped is a motor vehicle–it’s a mere technicality. I think of procedurals as featuring professionals following a more or less standard approach to solving a crime. Sure, the occasional flash of insight or gut-feeling breaks a case, but mostly it’s by the book even when our hero has thrown the book out the window.

BBQ festivals are now a global phenomenon. Brisbane. New Orleans. Trenton?

In these stories, crimes are solved by stumbling around, which is arguably the case here. Okay, that’s not entirely fair. As in other Plum volumes, there are parallel crimes being dealt with.

Mostly, this is a device that enables our author to play Stephanie’s dueling love interests against each other. Joe Morelli is a local detective who has known Stephanie since their school days and is forever talking, and sometimes engaging in, cohabitation with our heroine. He’s the straightest character in these books and the guy whose job it is to bring in the law when needed and otherwise keep them away. He heads, no pun intended, the murder investigation.

Then there’s Ranger, real name Carlos Manoso, a one-time bounty hunter who now runs a high-tech low-profile security agency. A man of few words and almost supernatural abilities (Morelli, who knows a rival when he sees one, constantly refers to Ranger as “Batman”), Ranger lends a Latin erotic element to even the most prosaic encounters with Stephanie. He also functions as her guardian angel and has immeasurable patience, since she manages to torch his vehicles at regular intervals.

The torchings are a running joke. As are the fire bombings of Stephanie’s apartment, Grandma Mazur’s visits to Stiva’s funeral home and dinner with the Plum family.  This installment, notably, lacks a good wake. But it does have a couple of family dinners, one of which finds a drag queen wrestling with another dinner guest. Mr. Plum, a stolid citizen who believes in the importance of routine, does a star turn here.

Imagine if Lady Bunny (seen here in 2001) added BBQ to Wigstock.

The secondary crime, this time out, is burglary, more specifically, a series of burglaries targeted at customers of Ranger’s security firm, Rangeman. Stephanie is brought in to see if she, as an outsider to the firm’s daily operations, can help figure out what’s going on.

This, too, is a bit of a stretch. Honestly, Stephanie isn’t terribly good at her job, nor does she demonstrate a Holmesian capacity for observation and deduction. Or at least she hasn’t to date.  I suppose there’s a first time for everything and, since I read these books as they cross my path, not in the order they are published, the first time may have already occurred. This time, though, Stephanie does solve that mystery through combined observation, deduction and dumb luck.

I never spoil the plot when speaking of crime stories, even when the plot is beside the point. It seems, these days, that my capacity for reading and thinking is over-stressed. A bit of silliness provided just the relief I needed.

And don’t we all deserve to lighten up in summer?

 

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