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Four to Score and High Five

 

Four to Score St. Martins Mass Market (Paperback), ISBN 0-312-96697-0
High Five St. Martins Press (Hardcover), ISBN 0-312-20303-9
It's summer in Trenton. Steam rises from vented manhole covers, while fried ozone shimmers over a vista of cracked sidewalks and dusty, one-eyed cars. Tar oozes through the asphalt, clinging to the tread of your sneakers, sucking you into the street just when you try to cross against the light. 

And in Four to Score, the fourth Janet Evanovich mystery featuring aspiring bail bondswoman Stephanie Plum, things are about to get much worse. Trenton bail bondsman Vinnie Plum just handed another case to his cousin Stephanie, the Calamity Jane of New Jersey bounty hunters. Maxine Nowicki jumped bail on a routine car theft charge, but as always, the minute Stephanie starts following Maxine's trail, routine flies out the nearest broken window. 

Lots of people want to find Maxine, one of them mutilating and murdering her nearest and dearest in the hopes of flushing her out. But Maxine covers her tracks well, emerging only long enough to send her loutish ex-boyfriend the latest clue to the location of his missing "love letters."

Afflicted with the aid of her irrepressible Hungarian Grandma Mazur and Lula, the 200-pound ex-hooker, Stephanie enlists a transvestite rock guitarist to help her crack Maxine's coded clues. Meanwhile, Stephanie's high school nemesis (and Vinnie's current lover) tails Stephanie in the hopes of stealing Stephanie's collar. And, oh yes, someone bombs Stephanie's car. Again. 

Stephanie's love life also heats up when detective Joe Morelli, the object of Stephanie's most lubricious daydreams, offers her a place to stay after someone bombs her apartment. Unfortunately, this brings Stephanie within the orbit of Joe's Grandma Bella, the terror of the Burg. Grandma Bella dresses only in black, uses the evil eye to rot her enemies' teeth and has visions concerning Stephanie and her grandson. 

Fortunately, Stephanie, Joe, Grandma Mazur and all of Evanovich's unforgettable series characters survive, returning in more or less good condition in the newest Evanovich mystery, High Five. October in Trenton might be almost bearable if Stephanie could snag a scofflaw worth some real money and find out what happened to her Uncle Fred. 

Uncle Fred vanished one Friday somewhere between the dry cleaners and the Grand Union supermarket near his home. Aunt Mabel goes through all the expected motions to find him -- filing a missing persons report and getting Stephanie's mother and grandmother to blackmail Stephanie into checking leads. But Mabel acts less than heartbroken over the old cheapskate's disappearance. 

Grandma Mazur thinks aliens abducted Fred, but why would aliens want to kill nearly everyone who spoke to the old coot in the last 24 hours before his disappearance? What was the relationship between Fred, who squeezed every penny until it screamed for mercy, and Bunchy, the friendly bookie now tailing Stephanie? And exactly how many cars, trucks and other wheeled vehicles will blow up in Stephanie's vicinity during the next 24 hours? 

Do not try to sneak-read Four to Score and High Five during a boring meeting or hunched under the nightstand lamp after your significant other starts to snore. Reading while riding the bus or subway could prove dicey as well. Both books will make you screech and whimper with laughter at the all the most inconvenient moments.  

Like a high-performance muscle car, Four to Score and High Five go from zero to 80 in 10 words flat, and the pace doesn't let up until you turn the final page. In fact, the last page of High Five may drive you all the way to Evanovich's New Hampshire home to demand the next installment. At the very least, you will find yourself wondering whom you need to bribe to snag a copy of the galleys. 

The books do suffer slightly if read too closely together. Admittedly, genre series thrive on consistency and satisfying reader expectations from one book or movie to the next. Witness the James Bond franchise. And like the producers of that venerable movie series, Evanovich never sings the same song twice. But reading Four to Score and High Five back to back, I found myself wondering why I always figure out the major subplot faster than Stephanie does. I also started anticipating the set pieces a little too far in advance. 

But as in the best James Bond movies, the audacity of Evanovich's set pieces makes the formula irrelevant. Even though I know an eruption of Grandma Mazur is inevitable, I keep hoping she'll turn up soon. After reading the first Stephanie Plum mystery in 1994, the Plums and everyone associated with them became Family in the capitalized, italicized sense my Italian-American mother uses to describe her nearest and dearest kin. 

As a result, I tend to judge Evanovich mysteries not by objective, critical standards, but by how well they evoke sweat-drenched summer nights in the South Philadelphia of my childhood. Can I hear my Italian uncles swapping lies on the tiny cement porch behind my aunt's house on Stanley Street, the chinks of their icy beer bottles and the soft sizzle of paper as they light their cigarettes? Does the book make me smell the aroma of garlic and red pepper that permeated every porous surface from wallpaper to wood to freshly laundered sheets? Will the ghost of my Aunt Mary coo and cluck about which second cousin she saw shoplifting on Fourth Street and whose husband looked the other way? 

Four to Score and High Five take me back to that South Philadelphia in a heartbeat, and they make me laugh every step of the way. 

Jean Marie Ward

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