Thriller Lovers' Guilty Pleasure

Critics say Janet Evanovich’s novels are low-brow, formulaic chick lit with a lurid crime twist, not worth a second glance. So why can’t I stop reading them?

Book critics aren’t supposed to like Janet Evanovich’s novels. We’re not even supposed to read them. They’re too low-brow, too formulaic, too fluffy; nothing more than chick lit on steroids and not worthy of critical attention. Well, at the risk of earning myself a lifetime ban from the finer literary salons, I have a confession to make: not only do I read Evanovich’s novels, I enjoy the heck out of them.

Reading one of Evanovich’s novels is like watching a new episode of your favorite television show.

Evanovich is best known for her long-running series featuring hapless bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, the latest of which is Finger Lickin’ Fifteen. Most of the Plum books develop along similar lines: Stephanie gets caught up in some madcap adventure that puts her life in danger. She spends some time bantering with her best friend, plus-sized ex-prostitute Lulu. She vacillates between the two men in her life: the oversexed cop Morelli and the silent-but-deadly-handsome Ranger. At least one of her cars gets destroyed. Her grandmother tries to shoot someone. And, in the end, Stephanie solves the case and brings the bad guys to justice.

Evanovich’s books aren’t sophisticated, but they are fun, effective and extremely well executed. Reading one is like watching a new episode of your favorite television show. You go into it with a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get, but if the people involved have done their job, you come away pleased—and one of the things Evanovich can be counted on for is to do her job right.

Finger Lickin’ Fifteen unfolds according to the pattern set out above, with two main storylines. In the A story, she’s working part-time for Ranger, a much more effective bounty hunter than she, who runs his own private security company. He wants Stephanie to go undercover in his operation in an attempt to ferret out a mole who’s ripping off the firm’s clients. This causes her quite a bit of awkward discomfort, putting her in close proximity with Ranger, whom she can barely keep her hands off.

The B Story finds Stephanie trying to keep Lulu alive long enough to enter a barbecue competition. Neither of the women can cook, but considering they’re being hunted by a giggling pair of hitmen, one of whom wields a giant meat cleaver, their lack of culinary skills is the least of their problems. (Why the man with the meat cleaver is trying to kill Lulu is a whole subplot in and of itself.)

It’s all a little silly, but that’s part of the point. Surely we haven’t become so serious that we can’t tolerate a little silliness in our lives. (St. Martin’s Press apparently doesn’t think so, as Finger Lickin’ Fifteen has an announced first printing of 2 million copies.) Most critics won’t touch Evanovich with a 10-foot pole—she might sully their tweed jackets—but maybe they should reconsider. If what Evanovich does is so easy, then why do most of her imitators fail so miserably? We could dismiss her success as being just another example of the lousy taste of the great unwashed, but we’d be wrong.

Evanovich understands on a fundamental level how to tell a good story and that’s something that is all too rare in today’s fiction, whether you’re talking about genre, literary, or otherwise. Along with her sense of story, Evanovich’s greatest talent is her ability with characters. In the Plum series, she’s created a likable collection of players, most of whom appeal because they’re so much more screwed up than we are. Unlike the heroes in most suspense novels, Stephanie Plum isn’t smarter than us or better than us or braver than us. Instead, she’s just like us: lazy, indecisive, selfish, lonely, and apt to go to the store in sweatpants because she’s too damn tired to get dressed.

This ain’t Dostoyevsky—I doubt Stephanie Plum could even spell Dostoyevsky—but it doesn’t have to be. There are times when we just want to laugh, to lose ourselves in a book that doesn’t require too much of us. We want to pick up something that will keep us entertained for four or five hours and help us forget about the lousy economy and the situation in North Korea. If that’s what you’re looking for, then Finger Lickin’ Fifteen is the book for you—critics be damned.

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David J. Montgomery is a critic for The Daily Beast and has written about authors and books for many of the country's largest newspapers.