When the chance to read Janet Evanovich’s latest Stephanie Plum novel, Takedown Twenty, arose I was first in line shouting “Me, me, me” in an entirely undignified way because Stephanie is an old friend of mine. It couldn’t be any other way after I’ve read 18 books about her and her hapless attempts to bring in the bad guys as a bail bond enforcer for her cousin Vinnie in the New Jersey town of Trenton. I’ve been with her since the very beginning back in 1994 – I have a signed copy of ‘One for the Money’ – and up to now, have missed only one, and that’s purely because I’ve not got round to tracking down a copy. As someone who spends most of her time on non-fiction or rather more ‘literary’ fiction, I love to step off my high-brow high-ground and have some fun with my favourite law and order girl.
You’ll not need to be a genius to work out that Takedown Twenty is the twentieth book in the Stephanie Plum series. If I were to be a tiny bit unkind, I would conclude that they became a bit formulaic after the first dozen. I wouldn’t be surprised if Janet Evanovich has a computer programme into which she plugs a few key plot elements and out pops another best seller. But as they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t’ fix it. I know what to expect and I love it every time. I know that Stephanie and her ‘big black and beautiful’ side-kick Lola will eat a lot of donuts and fried chicken (at Cluck in a Bucket), fall flat on their butts attempting to capture the bad guys, and that Stephanie’s love triangle with good-guy cop Joe Morelli and Ranger, the mysterious man in black, will be a feature but will never really get resolved. Stephanie will go to the funeral parlour with her grandma, her mother will cook pasta and do a lot of therapeutic ironing, and a good few cars will probably get splatted. What I wasn’t expecting this time was Kevin the Giraffe. No he’s not a bad guy gangster with a cute nickname, Kevin the Giraffe is a real giraffe and he’s lost on the streets of the ‘Burg’ where all the bad stuff happens.
In Takedown Twenty, Stephanie’s falling out with all the locals, including her boyfriend’s family. Top of her list of bond jumpers she needs to apprehend is Joe’s Uncle Sunny, a local hero-villain who’s related to most of the Italian community and famed for crooning Sinatra songs at parties. Like a Kray twin, he’s considered a good baddie, one who only ever kills other baddies. She’s also after a younger bad guy by the name of Antwan (presumably his parents couldn’t spell Antoine) whose gang tattoos identify him as a ruthless killer. And if that weren’t enough, along with trying to help Lola find Kevin and feed him lettuce, she’s doing a bit of ‘consultancy’ work for Ranger, trying to help him track down the Dumpster Killer, a chap who kills old ladies who play bingo and then dumps their bodies in – appropriately enough – dumpsters. It’s a lot for a girl to handle even without a complex love life and a certifiably insane family.
The list of characters has been slimmed down a bit compared to some of the recent late-teens volumes which had brought in rather more up to date characters such as stoned computer hackers and people who love computer gaming as well as sometimes flooding us with Stephanie’s sister and her children. There’s a timelessness about Takedown Twenty which I appreciated, a return to a simpler time when all a girl needs in her bag is a stun gun, some pepper spray and a hidden tracker that Ranger’s put there so he can come and get her out of trouble again and again.
The Morelli-Ranger-Stephanie love conundrum had been wearing a bit thin for a while now. From the moment many volumes ago when Stephanie did the dirty with the man in black, a certain tension was lost. But she’s playing relatively clean in this one. A few volumes back when Morelli’s grandma put the evil eye on Stephanie and made her insatiably randy, I got a bit fed up with quite so much ‘between the sheets’ and not enough ‘on the streets’ action but Takedown Twenty is back to the basics and it delivers what every Stephanie Plum fan wants and expects.
Can you join the party after 20 books? To be honest, you can. Every one of the books stands alone and can be read without prior knowledge. For a while Evanovich was trotting out all the past history in each book but this one really does make sense without the backstory. The characters are not so complex as to need a lot of padding out or explanation. There are good guys and bad guys, weird relatives, strange colleagues and lots of unhealthy bad food, and of course there’s a hamster and a dog, both of whom will live forever because that’s what Evanovich’s fans need them to do. Kevin the Giraffe might not fare quite so well if the girls can’t find out where he’s come from and what he’s doing on the mean streets of the Burg. But we all know that there will be a 21, 22, 23 and possibly all the way up to infinity so whilst Stephanie will be exposed to what the film-makers might call ‘moderate peril’ she’ll never really be in serious danger of much other than accidentally shooting herself or chipping a nail. That’s what we want, that’s why we buy, and we all want to be a little bit Plum.
Takedown Twenty by Janet Evanovich
Published by Headline Review, November 2013
With thanks to the publishers and to Sharon who received the book and passed it on to me for review.
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