(Published in Mostly Murder Magazine. Please contact Mark Levine at for permission to reprint.)

Reviewer Mark Levine interviewing author Janet Evanovich


AUTHOR: Janet Evanovich

PUBLISHER: St. Martin's Press


PAGES: 322

Review by Mark Levine

The question of Janet Evanovich's sanity has come up many times with her hilarious Stephanie Plum series, and it's sure to come up again with her most recent adventure, FOUR TO SCORE.

In this latest addition, self-taught bounty hunter Stephanie Plum finds herself on a simple mission: Find and recapture one Maxine Nowicki. Arrested for stealing her boyfriend's car, Nowicki failed to appear before the court. Bail is forfeit unless Nowicki is caught. Should be no problem for a fearless investigator like Plum.

Too bad nothing's simple. It seems Nowicki really hates the boyfriend, Eddie Kuntz. Nowicki has started sending coded messages to Kuntz, trying to blackmail him with some personal property Kuntz has. Kuntz hires Plum to help him recover the property by giving him access to Nowicki before she hauls her in to the cops. Kuntz claims this is about some old love letters. Wiley detective Plum figures he's lying, but then it isn't entirely ethical for her to be working for him as well as the bond agency.

Plum elicits the help of Sally Sweet, a transvestite rock musician who happens to be good with codes. Along with Lulu, a large black ex-hooker who works at the agency, the three go running across New Jersey following up on these coded messages, all of them clad in hose.

Things heat up: There is a deliberately set fire that totals Plum's apartment. No, Rex the hamster escapes harm. Her apartment in flames, the first thing her neighbor's grab is the cute little rodent. Somebody also blows up Plum's car -- No pets in the car. The evidence suggests somebody jealous of Plum's boyfriend, except she's not seeing anybody.

Could it be her cop-friend, Joe Morelli? They were certainly not an item, despite the long love-hate relationship they'd had for many years. If a jealous ex-girlfriend of Morelli's was behind the attacks, there was bound to be more trouble: Plum moved in with Morelli on a temporary basis after the apartment fire. Unfortunately, Nowicki doesn't turn up while any of this is going on.

Meanwhile, Plum's cousin Vinnie, the bail bondsman who employs our hero, has also assigned Joyce Barnhardt to the Nowicki case. Now, normally hiring somebody else to your case would just be insulting. However, Plum has some especially bad blood with Barnhardt, involving an infidelity with Plum's husband, back when she was married. This is worse then insulting.

The cast is filled with regulars, including Plum's gun-toting Grandma Mazur, and the expert bounty hunter known only as Ranger, who seems to spray pheremones and testosterone in his masculine wake as he passes by. Apparently, nobody normal lives in Jersey. Good thing for Plum fans.

Evanovich whips all the wacky characters and wild plots up into a mystery souffle, which is both hilarious and disturbingly realistic. People don't really act that way, do they? The characters are invigorated with enough depth to give them life and humor, but not so much that they can't sustain themselves over a series of books without becoming stale.

Certainly, Evanovich uses a stand-up comic's poetic license, so every wisecrack and retort is knock-down funny. Punch lines comeback later in the book for a second laugh, a technique which stand-up comics refer to as a "callback." For instance, it was funny when everyone at the bailbonds office seemed to know when Plum had been sexually active, but it was hilarious when this kept coming up, and even suspects and clients seemed to know. This humor is somewhat transparent for maximum laugh value, but at the same time speaks to the human condition. Something like this has happened to all of us.

Well, maybe not. My car's never been blown up, I've never fed a hamster a grape, and I don't hang out with straight transvestites who don't shave. I suspect most people haven't, which brings us back to the question of Janet Evanovich's sanity.

Read her latest, FOUR TO SCORE, then you decide. You'll have some great laughs, and who knows? Maybe you'll buy a hamster named Rex.