Don’t kid yourself — going to sleep is a scary business. Which is why children are comforted by hearing the same stories over and over at bedtime. Certain kinds of mysteries have a similar effect on grown-ups, delivering familiar themes and ritualistic procedures that promise a safe haven in a world of darkness. Which is why rational adults who can’t bear to open their 401(k) statements will rush out to buy FINGER LICKIN’ FIFTEEN (St. Martin’s, $27.95), the “new” Stephanie Plum novel by Janet Evanovich. Whatever bad news might be coming, the madcap heroine in these comic farces won’t be delivering it.
Life is always hectic in the blue-collar Trenton neighborhood where the disaster-prone Stephanie works as an enforcement agent in her cousin Vinny’s bail bond firm. This time, a lunatic known as Marco the Maniac takes a meat cleaver to a celebrity chef bound for the big barbecue cook-off to be held at Gooser Park. Eye on the reward, Stephanie’s obstreperous fat friend, Lula, decides to enter the cook-off, which she reckons will attract the killer. In a plot complication that’s no more plausible but reinforces the sexual dynamic between Stephanie and the men in her life, she’s hired by the dangerously attractive Ranger (“a man of mysterious talents”) to investigate the humiliating break-ins that have tarnished the reputation of his fancy security firm.
Like Little Annie Fanny in the vintage Playboy cartoon, Stephanie tends to shed articles of clothing as she becomes splattered with paint or doused with barbecue sauce during the course of her duties. Since fire often figures prominently in Stephanie’s misadventures, you can also count on a few cars and one or more rooms of her apartment going up in flames. Of course, the most spectacular conflagration is reserved for the barbecue.
But even as these catastrophic events are unfolding, the author allows her heroine to keep in touch with the supportive people and familiar places that represent home base. Rest assured, there are disorderly dinners at her family’s home and a rowdy wake attended by Grandma Mazur at Stiva’s Funeral Home, along with the usual high jinks from the colorful crooks and perverts Stephanie encounters on the job. It’s not all mechanical nuts and bolts, either. Evanovich writes with flair in an absurdist vein that her imitators can only envy. (“The bacon diet is unhealthy,” Stephanie solemnly advises Lula. “You had packs of dogs chasing you down the street when you were on the bacon diet.”) And while Evanovich may go overboard on the comic mayhem, she does it only so the kids are sent off to sleep smiling.
Recurring characters and themes may maintain the continuity of a mystery series, but reopening a case solved in a previous book is a high-risk venture. So is taking the hero out of his jurisdictional depth. C. J. Box tries both tricks in BELOW ZERO (Putnam, $24.95), the ninth novel in his sturdy series with Joe Pickett, a stand-up Wyoming game warden and an all-around good guy.
When Joe’s teenage daughter starts getting text messages from someone claiming to be her adopted sister, who died six years earlier in “Winterkill,” Joe drops his normal duties to search for the girl. And as soon as that search turns into a hunt for a serial killer who goes after people with big carbon footprints (“One society wedding produces 707 tons of carbon into the atmosphere”), Joe finds himself working with the F.B.I. on a case of domestic terrorism. When an agent reminds Joe that he’s only “one guy in a red shirt in a state pickup,” you can understand the author’s impulse to give his hero a career boost. But Joe seems happier as a feet-on-the-ground game warden, and it’s still his true element.
Jim Kelly might not care that he’s recycling some pretty stale conventions in DEATH WORE WHITE (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $24.95), a police procedural set on the Norfolk coast of England and featuring two detectives, a soured veteran and his youthful superior officer, neither of whom can stand the way the other one works. But despite using retread devices like odd-couple partners and a son obsessed with the case that gave his father a bad name, Kelly adds an inventive twist by coming up with what might be called a locked-car whodunit. The pickup truck in which a man is found murdered is caught in a pileup of eight vehicles trapped on a detour road when a blizzard blankets the coast, “a murder scene with no footprints in and no footprints out.” As the details of the plot build up, the immediate puzzle gives way to a broader picture of the region and its residents, so dependent on the sea — and one another — for their livelihood and even their lives.
And now for something way off the beaten track: a first novel set in Delhi that offers penetrating insights into the new India — which, as Tarquin Hall would have it, is more like the old India than many people care to admit. Vish Puri, the founder and director of Most Private Investigators Ltd., has the physique, the mustache, the sartorial taste and the egocentric airs of a Punjabi Hercule Poirot. But while Poirot solves crimes of consequence, the endearing Puri keeps his business going with “prematrimonials,” which largely entail vetting would-be grooms. In THE CASE OF THE MISSING SERVANT (Simon & Schuster, $24), Puri’s work on a possible murder case leads him to a rural district in eastern India for a dramatic look at the caste system at its worst. But the ordinary cases that come his way are no less revealing of his country’s discreet vices and not-so-discreet corruption. [NY Times Book Review]