Published June 16. 2014 4:00AM
Over the course of several bestselling and hilarious mysteries starring 30-something New Jersey bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, series author Janet Evanovich thinks her iconic heroine has learned a few things.
What, then, would the Stephanie of today - star of the just-published "Top Secret Twenty-One" - say if she could write an advice letter to the Stephanie Plum who first appeared two decades ago in a book called "One For the Money"?
"That's a fun question, but I can't see Stephanie actually writing a letter," laughs Evanovich, on the phone last week from her home in Florida. "She might meet her in a bar and, after a few cosmos, offer some suggestions. I think Stephanie's pretty pleased with herself, overall. She's starting to find herself. The advice she would give would probably be: stick with it and pay attention to (her mentor/quasi-love interest) Ranger. And keep practicing safe sex."
In celebration of "Top Secret Twenty-One," Evanovich appears Thursday evening at a book signing in the Fox Theater at Foxwoods Resort Casino.
As always, "Top Secret Twenty-One" focuses on the seedy underbelly of Trenton where, this time out, a used-car dealer named Jimmy Poletti has been caught selling a lot more than automobiles on his lot. When he misses his court date, Stephanie's hired to round him up. Unfortunately, the leads she follows seem to end up with dead bodies. Stephanie would love Ranger's help, but he's become the target of an assassination plot. With the usual cast of lovable and outrageous supporting characters - and with the affectionate backdrop of quirky Trenton - Evanovich elegantly weaves suspense and punch lines.
In conversation, the 73-year-old Evanovich is just as funny as her fictional star and, considering she's the most successful female mystery novelist in the world - with over 75 million books sold in 27 languages - she's quite modest and thoughtful about her craft.
For one thing, before the Plum series took off, Evanovich wrote genre romance novels for years. Ultimately, she found it unfulfilling and, frankly, not particularly lucrative.
"Part of me is the entertainer - a huge part of me - but there's also the business part," she says. "I was relatively old, and a lot of the business of writing romance novels was self-promotion. The publishers back then didn't help us a lot, and it was very difficult to build an audience and a backlist. It was frustrating. Plus, there were aspects of writing romance that I liked, but there were aspects I didn't like."
Evanovich decided she needed a "goldmine idea" and looked to Tom Clancy's work as a template.
"He was hugely successful, and I asked, 'Why is he so successful?' He found a hole in the marketplace. No one was writing the voyeuristic novel for the military men and their secrets. He took advantage of that I and thought, 'This is what I need to do,'" she says.
Evanovich decided to take the elements of genre romance she enjoyed - the romantic chase and the adventure - and fuse them into the crime fiction format.
She says, "Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky were doing that, but their books were hard-boiled. I thought I'd try soft-boiled. I knew it wasn't going to change the world of literature, but I thought I could create a world that could be enjoyed by people, and I was lucky."
Luck is indeed part of any successful enterprise - particularly in the arts world - but Evanovich's seven-day-a-week work ethic and a distinctive and seemingly effortless comic touch have more than generated a substantial amount of "luck." Again, Evanovich did her homework.
"Robert B. Parker is one of my favorite authors, and his (Spenser) books were what I studied when I moved from romance to mystery. He wrote page-turners that were quick and funny and irresistible reads," Evanovich says. "The funny stuff comes easier for me than the serious, and I had to learn to do both and keep it moving. It's like making gravy, and you have to reduce it and boil it down. Don't write 17 pages and then think about what you don't need. Think about what you want to say and get it to the reader in six sentences. Parker was great at that."
As with Parker's Boston, Evanovich uses Trenton and New Jersey as significant elements in the series.
"Though we don't live in Jersey anymore, it will always be a big part of me," she says. "There's a Jersey attitude that's very real and very funny. No one worries about being politically incorrect; instead, we're just kind to each other. We're flawed but not in a horrible or wicked way. The Jersey stereotype is pretty much right on, and I love it. I love the mix of neighborhoods and backgrounds and the food and the energy and even the hand gestures. That's what I want to bring to the Plum series: they're characters we'd like to know, with a sense of family and community and morality. And they make you laugh."