Martin's Press (Paperback), ISBN 0312977441
Nancy Bartholomew's Sierra Lavotini mysteries, like their exotic dancer sleuth, specialize in rescues. No matter how grim things appear in the world outside the printed page, pick up any installment in Bartholomew's "Strip" series and you'll start laughing by the second paragraph. Sometimes sooner. You can't help yourself. When Bartholomew describes Sierra's reaction to being shot in the -- er, assets or the proper technique for hypnotizing a hairless Chihuahua named Fluffy into making like a German Shepherd with a bad case of PMS, you're simply gone. Not only that, but Bartholomew's gags grow even funnier in retrospect.
November finds two fresh doses of Bartholomew's medicinal laughter on bookstore shelves. Film Strip, the third book in the series, opens with Sierra's shooting. An aggrieved, more or less innocent bystander, Sierra doesn't find enough comfort in the arms of Panama City homicide detective John Nailor to keep her from wondering who would want to shoot a visiting porn star.
The Famous Finger of Guilt points to Marla the Bomber, Sierra's main competition at the Tiffany Gentlemen's Club. But Sierra's boss Vincent, the oversized scion of the area's largest used car dealing family, nurtures a secret passion for Marla (or her equally famous B-52s) and refuses to consider the possibility of her guilt. As the body count mounts, Sierra concedes that Vincent might be right. Something smells fishy -- fishier even than Marla's skuzzy boyfriend, the aptly named Little Rickey.
Meanwhile, Sierra wrestles with her growing relationship with John Nailor, the exceedingly long arms of her fiercely protective South Philadelphia family and the consequences of invoking the Lavotini name once too often. Not her family name, you understand. Sierra's father and four big brothers make an honest living as firemen. But the Cape May, N.J., Lavotinis -- led by the infamous Big Moose Lavotini -- strike terror in the heart of even the most hardened local goon. You can see how a girl in Sierra's situation would find this useful…at least until Big Moose finds out.
The new hardcover, Strip Poker, picks up Sierra's private life a few months after Film Strip left off and presents her with a new set of professional challenges. Less than a week before Christmas, Vincent manages to lose the Tiffany Gentlemen's Club in a poker game and finds himself set up for a murder rap at the same time. The new owner renames the club Mike's House of Booty and proceeds to live down to the name, even to the point of linking up with the lowlife proprietor of the infamous Beaver Club.
Sierra leads the walkout from Mike's House of Booty and the effort to clear Vincent's name. John believes she might be right on this one -- a first! But witnesses who might be able to help keep dying before Sierra can talk to them.
Sierra's family won't talk to her, which worries her even more. The Lavotinis live life at the tops of their lungs. Not talking means the end of the world, and Sierra scrambles to make her holiday flight to Philadelphia, despite the Vincent's peril and the arrival of John's ex-wife at the loneliest time of the year. Then the dangerously attractive, six-foot-five guy in a custom-upholstered, black limousine drives up.
Film Strip and Strip Poker display a consistent level of plotting, strong characterization and plenty of over-the-top hilarity. The books don't suffer when read back-to-back, and you don't need to read the series in order. But once you start, you'll find yourself wanting to go back and read the books you missed.
Bartholomew balances the outrageousness of the club world, trailer park life and would-be wise guys with a firm grasp of everyday reality. Born in the Philadelphia suburbs, she perfectly captures the South Philadelphia ethos, from the magical effect of appearances to the all night driving habits of panicked father figures. Sierra's blood and extended family eat, drink, live, breathe family in every shade and meaning of the word. It forms the core of their moral code and drives every action.
In addition, Bartholomew understands how life changes a body over time, even a very short time. Romances generate heat, bloom and explode, leaving behind radioactive debris that poisons every subsequent touch. Loved ones hurt. The psychotic but psychic crazy lady next door needs her monthly shot and to feel needed.
Humor sustains you through the best and worst. Sierra may drive a convertible instead of a horse, and she carries a Chihuahua instead of a lance, but she always comes through for the reader in distress.
Jean Marie Ward
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