Janet Evanovich’s first Stephanie Plum’s novel from 1994 is probably an odd choice for ‘romantic novel’ because it most definitely sits on the crime shelf in book shops. It won a Crime Writers’ Association award for best debut, and the sequel, Two For the Show, won a CWA award for best comic novel. Janet Evanovich is a triple threat: she can write romance, comedy, and also intricately plot a crime caper.
But Evanovich’s first career was writing romantic fiction, and she can’t seem to resist suffusing her crime series with oodles of angsty love stuff. For me, and I suspect for a lot of Evanovich fans, the book is a gorgeously romantic read, with plenty of love/hate flirting between bounty hunter Stephanie Plum and drop-dead gorgeous cop Joe Morelli.
Evanovich could have started the novel with a crime being committed or with an introduction to our heroine, but instead she chooses to put Joe Morelli front and centre.
There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever. Joseph Morelli did this to me – not forever, but periodically.
In fact, when we do learn about the heroine, it’s in relation to Morelli. The two were childhood neighbours in a Jersey suburb where the ‘Houses were attached and narrow. Yards were small. Cars were American’.
When I was a kid I didn’t ordinarily play with Joe Morelli. He lived two blocks over and was two years older. ‘Stay away from those Morelli boys,’ my mother had warned me. ‘They’re wild. I hear things about what they do to girls when they get them alone.’
‘What kinds of things?’ I’d asked eagerly.
That ‘eagerly’ tells you a lot about Stephanie.
We then learn that she and Morelli had a short-lived fling as teenagers and that she never really forgave him when he dumped her to join the navy. Morelli had seduced her behind the counter of the bakery she worked in, a fact that she tries to hide when someone asks if she knows him.
I nodded. ‘I sold him a cannoli when I was in high school.’
Connie grunted. ‘Honey, half of all the women in New Jersey sold him their cannoli.”
We meet grown-up Stephanie newly laid-off from a discount lingerie store and behind on her car re-payments. She’s desperate for cash so she accepts a job as a bail bond agent (read: bounty hunter) for her scummy cousin Vinnie.
And one of the first fugitives she has to apprehend is Joe Morelli who, although having had an exemplary record as a vice cop, has now gone missing after being accused of murder. The idea of bringing him in is dangerously appealing; a way to pay him back for breaking her heart, although she tries to tell herself otherwise.
Finding Morelli had nothing to do with revenge. Finding Morelli had to do with the rent money. Yeah, right. That’s why I suddenly had this knot in my stomach.
It’s soon clear to us and Stephanie that the charges against Morelli have been trumped up. And while she’s got sympathy for him, what Stephanie cares most about is staying off the breadline and for that she needs the paycheck she’ll receive once she brings him in.
Her biggest asset is her desperation, but she hides this with plenty of chutzpah. After she finds Morelli holed up in a cousin’s apartment, she’s shocked that he simply laughs off the idea that she’ll be able to ever force him into custody. Stephanie, however, refuses to be outwardly cowed.
‘I may be new at this apprehension stuff but I’m not stupid and I’m not a quitter. I told Vinnie I’d bring you in and that’s exactly what I intend to do. You can run if you want, but I’ll find you, and I’ll do whatever is necessary to apprehend you.’
What a load of bull! I couldn’t believe I was saying it. I’d been lucky to find him this first time, and the only way I was ever going to apprehend him was if I stumbled upon him already bound, gagged, and knocked unconscious. Even then, I wasn’t sure how far I could drag him.
The beauty of this book is that the crime plot and the romance strands are neatly intertwined. While pursuing leads to find Morelli, Stephanie gets embroiled in the plot to frame Morelli and pisses off some very bad guys. Morelli then has to dive in and help her escape and the pair end up working together to clear his name.
But, and this is what makes Stephanie such an admirable character, she never lets her attraction for Morelli interfere with her professional aim of bringing him in. They end up finding the evidence they need to clear him, but just at the point where, if this were a traditional romance they might finally kiss, she ends up locking him in the back of a van and driving him into custody and claiming that long-cherished bounty cheque.
Evanonovich amps up the fun by adding a second possible romantic hero in the form of Ranger, who’s also a bounty hunter and quite the badass. And as the series progresses readers get to choose whether they’re #TeamMorelli or #TeamRanger.
The series is still going strong (Book 25!) but my allegiances have never wavered. Team Morelli all the way.
PS: Don’t you adore the original cover? Later editions have girlier covers, but I love how this image reflects Stephanie’s hard-boiled side. And look at how beautifully Book 2 fits: