by Janet Evanovich, contemporary (2003)
Headline, £10.99, ISBN 0-7472-6963-7
My bitterness at the slide of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum franchise into the sad world of slapstick wackiness is well-documented on this website. I actually made a half-hearted vow to give up on this series. However, when I saw the other day the international trade paperback edition of To The Nines sold at a whopping 70% promotional discount at the local Borders, I thought hey, why not, grabbed a copy, and proceeded to read, expecting the worst.
I am very pleasantly surprised, however, by this book. Grandmother Mazur and the Geriatric Brigade are at a complete minimum. After the tragic Ranger-Stephanie fiasco of the last book, the Ranger-Stephanie-Joe love triangle is pushed to the sidelines. What we have, people, is Stephanie Plum actually spending the entire book on one - one! - FTA case that escalates into something more personal when Stephanie realizes she's the one every serial-killing Tom, Dick, and Harry are chasing after.
Vinnie Plum, Stephanie's boss and pervert cousin, is putting every bond enforcement agent of his on top alert because Samuel Singh, the guy Vinnie personally sponsored in the new visa bond program, is missing. Vinnie has just received some great front-page exposure at the local Trenton papers for his sponsoring Sam, and if word gets out that Sam is really gone for good, well, he doesn't intend to learn of the consequences because Ranger and Stephanie are bringing the MIA guy back no matter what. In this book, Ranger's men and Stephanie's Lula and Connie are going to bump and grind with each other in a comedy of unintentional errors. However, when people associated with Sam starts dying one by one and snapshots of the victims start showing up at Stephanie's doorstep, she soon realizes that the target here may not be Sam but Stephanie Plum herself.
To The Nines shows that Steph still doesn't carry a gun. I've decided to stop laboring on this, not only because I'm so fed up of ranting about it but also because I'm convinced that nothing short of a Pavlovian torture session involve cattle prods will make that woman wise up and embrace the Charlie Heston in her. But this book also sees a more short-tempered and nastier Steph who treat the people around her sometimes unnecessarily badly. It may not be a direction readers want Steph to take, but I'm just glad that the character seems to be getting less naive and idealistic as time passes by. She may forget her gun, but Steph actually grabs a man in this book and smashes his face into the car - once, twice, thrice, ding-ding, we have a winner!
The humor of this book has also returned to the more subdued style of the first three books of the series. Most memorable this time is Lula being on an all-meat diet to lose some pounds. The story really comes alive, however, when Stephanie, Lula, and Connie hit Las Vegas, resulting in some really laugh-out-loud scenes. The humor sometimes still come from Stephanie behaving ineptly, but these antics never cross the too-stupid line the way the last few books often do. Grandmother Mazur only makes one blessedly short appearance. Joe is mainly a background player. Ranger is mostly a man on a mission. The humor comes in the form of sometimes stinging and acerbic wit and the occasional goofy misadventures of the heroine and the bad guys.
A welcome return to this book is also the reappearance of menacing villains this time around. No, we're no longer talking about missing old men and women with all the fearsome demeanor of a three-legged toothless chinhuahua - we're talking about a bunch of killers that actually hurt Stephanie in this story and the way the book culminates in a creepy game that sees Stephanie fumbling in the dark to hunt for weapons the main villain planted throughout the building to defend herself. Several developments in this book hint that Stephanie is slowly crossing the line from being naive and bumbling towards the darker side. I'm not sure whether I like it, but I know I like this better than the Old People Are Stupid slapstick trainwrecks the series seemed to be heading towards until now.
Personally, I find the suspense thread of this book a throwback to the first three books. Heck, this book is the official Book Four, as far as I'm concerned, of the Stephanie Plum series. If this book isn't as funny as before, I chalk this to the fact that Ms Evanovich's humor is getting repetitious. But if the author can make a complete turnaround and kick her series back to shape instead of succumbing further to editorial and fan pressures for more bad soap opera, I'm sure she will turn the humor back around in no time. While in any other day To The Nines will be a book that, still good, is in no way comparable to books one to three, in this case I am just so happy that Stephanie Plum is back that I'm all for celebrating. Count me in on climbing back onboard for the next book, if only to hope that the turnaround in To The Nines is here to stay for good. 'Shippers will moan the minimal amount of 'Shipper elements in this book (although there is one major scene here that will thrill Rangerite fans), but see me celebrate with a whoop of joy.
Welcome back, Stephanie Plum. You have no idea how much you have been missed.
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